Every night I am made to repeat the same lines one hundred times before bed. If I have misbehaved or left my work undone, I repeat the lines two hundred times. Sometimes five hundred, sometimes more. If I stutter, I have to start over. If I fidget or change the inflection in my voice, my wrists are slapped with a wooden ruler. The ruler has a metal edge that bites my skin.
“And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.”
I sleep in the house’s old maid room by the kitchen. Saeva put my few belongings there when I arrived ages ago. She said it would be easiest to access the kitchen that way. She told me those things with glittering smiles and promises of a fresh start. Of course, I was eager to please her. I took any scrap she threw my way like a starved dog. I suppose I was. Am.
“And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:”
The first day of school, I pulled on Jill’s old pair of stockings with the holes in the toes and a rip on the back of the knee and made scrambled eggs and toast for everyone. Kathryn frowned at the eggs on her plate, shoving them around with a fork. Saeva’s lip curled. Jill scarfed it down wordlessly. Kathryn said the eggs were slimy and refused to eat. That was the first time I saw the flash of white-hot anger in Saeva’s eyes when she looked at me.
“Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”
Saeva asked where I was going that morning, three years ago. I put on my happy face– the one that said ‘yes, whatever you want’– and told her I was going to school, wasn’t I? I’d probably find some hand-me-down textbooks in the library at the academy. I could sense her displeasure from a mile away. I wasn’t an idiot; I knew the bond between us had already frayed, if there had been one in the first place.
“And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:”
Saeva laughed in my face.
“Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”
No, no, Saeva told me. I wasn’t to go to school with the girls. I was to stay and keep the house while she worked in the city, and make the dinner for her return. School? The very thought was incredible to her. You haven’t the mind for it, Juniper, she said. And she bent down to my ear and whispered “now run along and clean Jill’s room,” and pressed her cold lips to my cheek, her spidery fingers fluttering to her sides as she turned and left the breakfast room.
And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:
The rest is dull and too long to recount here, and it hardly matters. Three years have passed in silence save the sound of scrubbing the bathroom tiles. Leaves have grown and fallen on the hazel trees on the grounds below thrice; I have grown callouses and blisters. I clean the fallen droplets of foundation in Kathryn’s sink and wonder what it would be like to put makeup on. My mother wore makeup in her casket. She didn’t look alive. She looked like an imposter posing as my mother. I remember a man with sour breath leaning down towards me while I clutched the edge of the wood, and he said, “the eyes are one of the first things that you notice after death. Did you know that? They sink, just like dough deflates.” I told him I didn’t know that, even though I didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t want to talk to him.
“Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”
It isn’t hard to imagine myself in my mother’s casket, caked in chalky-white makeup with sinking eyeballs. I usually dream about that. It’s never a nightmare. I think that everyone dreams when they sleep, and real nightmares are for when you wake up. I always wake up with a cold stone of dread anchored in the pit of my stomach. It weighs me down the whole day. My feet get sluggish, and my brain gets tired, and I can hardly hold myself together enough to make dinner.
Again. Recite it again.
One time I forgot to make dinner. Really I just fell asleep. Saeva had me meticulously regrout the shower tiles and do the laundry, which took up the entire day. I woke up to a sharp pinch on my ear, and she tugged me up off the tiles by my earlobe. That night I was whipped, but only after the filet mignon was cooked to her liking. And fortunately, it was only ten lashes.
Good girl. Go to bed now. I’d better not hear you creeping around in the middle of the night.
Jill was nice to me. She only occasionally hit me, but I couldn’t blame her. Everyone did. And besides, she’d give me the crusts of her toast if ever I was locked in my room for the week. Jill was stupider than Kathy. And fatter. Kathy was just like Saeva. I wondered if they’d been immaculately conceived because I couldn’t picture Saeva with a man. And I couldn’t picture her giving birth either, so perhaps storks weren’t the most absurd idea.
Have you done the dishes? Mopped? I told you to clean out the storage room, you lazy oaf.
Love had crystallized in my head somehow. Love, just like storks that brought babies wrapped up in pastel blankets and dropped them at doorsteps, was only something from a children’s book. I couldn’t imagine it. I couldn’t even understand it. How did someone like my mother love someone like my father? The concept was foreign. Who had loved Saeva? Had anyone loved anyone before, in the history of the world? I doubted it.
A very small degree of hope is sufficient to cause the birth of love.
One day Kathy came home with her hand in a boy’s, and I saw Jill slinking along behind them, her head lowered and her eyes staring fixedly at the grooves in the wood. She gave me her homework to look over in the maid’s room while they went upstairs for a while. I noticed Jill’s fingers tapping on her skirt. The nails were bitten off to the point of bleeding. I looked away.
Go outside. You’re not to come back inside until tomorrow. Let this be a lesson.
I took my time in heading to the stables, even though the air was freezing, and nipped at my skin. The grounds were vast and sprawling, like the battlefields my mother showed me as a kid. Rows of evenly planted hazel trees trickled with golden leaves. I passed their looming figures and wrapped my arms around myself, the wind stinging my eyes and making me tear up. At the stables, I saw a boy, and the boy saw me, and I understood suddenly how someone could believe in something as ridiculous as love. It was unfair. Just because someone was good-looking they could convince someone else of something impossible. That was far too much power, wasn’t it?
And if you try to come inside, I’ll give you twenty lashes.
You look cold, he said. His cheeks, stung by the wind, were like two red halves of an apple. His hair was the color of the coal I shoveled into the furnace each night. His skin was like the frost that covered the grass in the early morning. And his eyes were like two sparkling chips of stained glass from a cathedral somewhere far away. I told him that I had a sweater stored in one of the stalls, and I moved past him to retrieve it. He asked for my name. I said, “Juniper.” He said his name was Wren.
He became my dearest friend. My closest companion. He became like my own brother. Wren, my Wren. At night I let his name roll around on my tongue, my mouth twisting to form its sound. I didn’t dare speak it, just to be safe. We met at the stables every chance I got. He was there mostly to look after the horses, and other times he taught Kathryn to ride. Saeva enjoyed making me watch them together as if she knew. Her lip curled triumphantly as I shoveled the horse manure.
Finish your line, you stupid girl.
“Juniper,” she says to me now, “I think our Kathryn has taken quite a liking to the young lord. Shall we have him for tea? Set out the finest saucers and cups and the sugar cakes.” I set the table with trembling fingers and nearly drop the delicate china. I did not know Wren is a young lord. And while he stares at me across the room, past Kathryn, I wish I could blend into the curtains and fade from existence. I’m a fool. I thought he liked me. I thought I liked him. But there he is, in stiff coats and polished boots and a crisp white shirt tucked into his breeches. And looking at me as though I’m not at all what he expected. Well, that makes two of us.
“Forgive me,” Wren says suddenly, and I straighten my back as Saeva’s eyebrow arches, her smile looking as if it is made of the same fragile china as the teacups. “won’t your other daughter join us?”
Saeva tilts her head quizzically. What does he mean? I know what he means.
“Oh, Jill?” she says. “No, no, Jill is with a friend today.”
“Pardon me,” Wren says with a smile sweeter than the sugar cakes that he hasn’t touched, “I meant your daughter there– was it Juniper?”
Saeva’s smile cracks. I could sink into the rose-patterned carpet and melt into nothingness, but I doubt she’d like that. No, she would sooner strangle me and give me twenty lashes than let me die so easily. I open my mouth to object, but Saeva’s lip forms a sneer as if she smells something particularly unpleasant. Her blinks become rapid.
“Walk with me,” she suddenly announces, standing and leaving the room. Kathryn’s teacup clatters in its saucer. She spoke only to Wren. Wren’s gaze flickers from me to Kathryn, but he stands to follow her out of the room. The windows rattle outside; a storm is coming in and the sky is darkening. I should tell him not to go. I should find a way to make him stay. Instead, I watch mutely as he leaves the room, his boots clicking on the wood past the carpet, and I feel myself deflate when he is gone, like a balloon that has been pricked with a needle.
“He’s intolerably boring,” Kathryn says. “I think I shall go mad if I have to marry him.”
My heart plummets to my stomach. Who said anything about marriage?
Seconds pass, then minutes. Then two hours have gone by, and still, Saeva is absent. I clear the table. I wash and dry the cups and saucers. I put away the sugar cakes. I busy myself with sweeping the floor (idle hands are the Devil’s workshop) and stoke the fire in the stove. Finally, Saeva appears, the door to the kitchen banging open from the wind. And there is blood on her hands, soaking the hem of her fine dress. She is frowning darkly at me.
“Fifty lashes,” she says. “And you will stay in the stable from now on.”
My back had just healed over– I had managed to do little to upset her these past months. And so when the whip digs into my skin again, it is a thousand times more painful than it has ever been before. I sob with each stroke. I clutch the wall as if it can help me.
Whore. Prostitute. Harlot.
What scares me, as I reel from the pain and go away in my head for a while, is the blood on her dress. And I know what it means, although I cannot bring myself to dwell on it.
This is your doing.
She looks through all of my possessions before I leave for the stables. She throws out most of my clothes and all of my books and trinkets. I am glad I’d hidden the things Jill had given me over the years.
If you behave as an animal, you shall live as an animal, you wicked, wicked creature.
As I stumble to the stables, lightning flashing viciously in the sky before me, I am too numb to cry. My skin sticks to the thin fabric of my dress, and every drop of rain feels like I am being lashed all over again. I run as fast as I can. The horses are disturbed, making frightened, high whinnies as I approach. I can already see the blood leaking down the dirt floor as I get closer. I am dazed when I see a headless corpse slumped against one of the stall doors. A corpse with shiny boots and stiff coats. And not far from its body is the head, its eyes closed as if it is asleep. They haven’t sunk yet.
I do the only thing I can do: I take Jill’s white silk scarf and gently pick up his head. I set it back on the bloodied stump of his neck, and wind the scarf around his neck, tying it tightly. My horror is outweighed only by my despair. My brother, my friend, my Wren. Were we now betrothed by his blood? I dip one of my torn nightgowns in the bucket of rainwater outside and wash the blood from his shoulders and hands. And I weep.
When dawn creeps up over the sky, the rainclouds gone, I hear birdsong by the entrance of the stable. I can’t peel myself from his cold body. I’d held him in my arms all night. But the birdsong grows louder, and I stagger to my feet, crying out in pain, for the lashes have peeled the skin from my back and I am bloodied. I think I will die.
Outside, sitting on a hazel tree branch, there is a wren. It cocks its head and me, and I again dissolve into tears. How I can find anything beautiful now that my Wren is gone feels like a betrayal. I lean against the tree on my side, gripping one of the branches with one hand, and wipe my face on the shoulder of my frayed dress. Perhaps this Wren is my Wren. It flutters to my side and chirps beside my ear.
“Wren is gone,” I weep. “Wren is gone.”
I see Saeva storming down the hill from the house, her skirts flicking like a serpent rearing back to strike. Her hair is smoothed back perfectly, and as she comes closer, I can smell a hint of perfume.
“Your father is here. You will stay in the stables, out of sight.” She is furious– I can see it in her eyes. I don’t respond immediately, and she strikes me with one hand, so hard that I fall to the ground and feel the rocks press into my wounded back through the cloth of the dress. I choke down a scream. It will be worse for me if I make a noise.
I haven’t seen my father since I arrived here.
That is why when I see a man with hair like spun gold and eyes as merry as the Yuletide coming down the hill after Saeva, his voice like a lion’s roar on the wind, my heart leaps inside my chest. Will he hate me? I don’t know. But somehow I still love him. And I don’t quite know what that means.
He does not recognize me. He thinks I am a stablehand.
“My love,” he says to his new wife, “why are you here?”
He does not notice her face grow pale as she stares past me a little, where the blood is frozen on the dirt. I want to cry out. I want to throw my arms around him. I want to, I want to, I want to. So I do.
“Father,” I say. He pushes me back gently and looks at me. I see the horror fill his eyes, and he gazes from me to Saeva. Saeva only lifts her head and spits at me.
“I have tried taming the devil from her these past years. She is as wicked as they come.”
But my father is looking at his hands, which are blood-soaked from touching my back, and he sees my shoes and cries out.
“Your shoes are red,” he whispers. I had not noticed. I look now to see them soaked with Wren’s blood.
Saeva is rooted to the spot, her mouth hanging open in terror, and she stretches a long white finger in front of her, pointing at something behind me. I turn to see Wren’s body unfolding until it is standing, the eyes shuttering open. It staggers towards us. Saeva steps back, but it follows her. My father steps next to me and pushes me behind him carefully, but it is not after us. It catches Saeva into an embrace, and I see her hands claw at her sides uselessly as its grip tightens. And tightens. And tightens.
The wren on the tree sings. Another wren joins it. And suddenly the sound of wings beating fills the air, and Saeva is screaming, and the last thing I see before her bones crack from the embrace and her body slumps is that her eyes will never sink; they are gone. The wrens fly away.
“And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire…”
The house bursts into flame beyond us– my father gasps and flees towards it while Wren’s body slumps forward, and with a hiss, his flesh dissolves until a pile of bones clatter to the grass as dry as paper. Saeva is gone, too. I see Jill scurrying up the hill past the house. My father calls my name and the wind carries it. They are leaving. They are leaving and so should I.
But I stoop to touch the bones. I know my father and Jill are gone by now. It doesn’t matter. The house crackles and shivers from far away. I dig a hole in the mud by the tree with both hands and I don’t stop until it is big enough for all of the bones. And I lay them there, in the cold earth, and cover them up. Mud is on my hands. I open the stable stalls and let the horses loose.
I am cold. I take slow steps to the burning house. Maybe I’ll warm my hands by the fire.
But the flame extinguishes, and I see large black clouds spiral into the sky. I cough as soot dusts my face. In the haze, as I get closer, I think I can see something shuffling around in the ruins. I reach a hand out, and another white hand shoots out of the smog and grips mine. I gasp. Wren is standing before me with a smile sweeter than a sugar cake. A low, musical sound trickles from the forest of trees behind us, and his hand touches my cheek.
“Juniper,” he says, “come with me.”
There is a white silk scarf tied around his throat.
I don’t ask where we are going. I only say yes.
His hand is warm on my healed back. I am wearing a gown of glittering gold as we walk into the forest together, hand in hand. There is a crown on my head and slippers made of glass on my feet. And Wren, my Wren, kisses my lips firmly before we disappear.