Emily’s first week at the boarding house passed with far less fuss than was had on that very first day. Slowly the young woman was introduced to some of the other occupants of the house. Emily had a feeling each of them had an interesting story to tell but after the fairy incident everyone was well warned by Miss Emma to let her niece settle in gradually.
Though she wanted to know everything she could, Emily was still quite grateful for her aunt’s protective stance. It was wonderful to know the world was far more interesting than she had originally believed, but at the same time she had a small fear that for all the wonderful things she would discover, there was potentially scary things to be found as well. It was like the story of Mab’s fairy: She’d encountered a lot of scary creatures before she met Pearl.
Emily was finding routines to slip into. These routines weren’t quite rituals yet but they had the makings to be one. By nature the young woman didn’t like change and she didn’t like her day to day to be disorderly. So she was finding comfort in this forming structure.
In the mornings she was typically awoken by Sigrid as though the imp was a human alarm clock. Right around eight the little girl came bounding into her room and onto her bed. If Emily pretended to sleep after this intrusion, Sigrid would lean in and pull her eyelids open and declare she knew Emily was hiding in there.
Sigrid liked to sit on the older girl’s bed and chatter away while Emily was in the bathroom washing her face and brushing her teeth. Emily had to admit she liked the strange little stories the younger girl had to tell. Then the two walked hand in hand down to the kitchen where Sigrid’s mother would have breakfast waiting for them.
After breakfast Sonja would say goodbye to her daughter and be off to work in town. Emily would join Sigrid for a little while talking to the cute squirrel Rata. Emily still hadn’t seen the infamous Bauta, who Rata was still happy to be a jerk to. And the more often she spent time with the little girl and the cantankerous squirrel, the more she felt like the tree itself was a silent character playing mute in the background.
Eventually Emily would leave the little girl to her squirrel chat. Sigrid only had an hour of this free time before she was to head inside and join another young tenet in the house for summer homeschooling. This answered the question of who watched the hyper little creature while her mother was away.
Emily found that she liked to sit in the front parlor during the early part of the day and watch as the household woke up and began their day. She met many of the other tenets this way. The first person she met there was Leelu.
Leelu was the classic bohemian looking woman who’d come help bring Emily’s things to the boarding house. As best she could tell, Emily figured Leelu was in her early twenties. She was a pretty, carefree kind of woman who reminded Emily of Stevie Nicks, only with very bright red locks. This was fitting because she liked to sing. Often Emily heard the woman’s sweet voice humming something vaguely Celtic before she passed into the parlor.
When Leelu passed through her companion Tac was usually not far behind.
Tac was the man (aside from the younger man) who’d come help move Emily’s things. In Emily’s upset frame of mind she hadn’t paid the three people helping her much attention. Now that she was able to sit and give everyone a good look over she wondered how she had missed the fact that Tac was quite handsome in a rugged man sort of way. He was very tall and had dark hair that was neatly cut. He always had the start of a beard going but it never grew much farther than a pleasant looking scruff that covered his chin. When the young woman caught the man’s dark eyes she was always painfully reminded that she’d just pasted the puberty mark. It made her act a little daffy around him.
It was hard to tell if Leelu and Tac were a couple or just very good friends. There was an absolute closeness about them but they were never really affectionate towards one another except for a friendly goodbye hug when they parted ways. They did share a room in the boarding house but Emily was from a generation progressive enough to know this didn’t necessarily mean they were together.
Quietly Emily hoped the two were not a couple. It didn’t matter that Tac was at the very least ten years her senior, she just liked the idea that he was single and maybe, just maybe she’d grow up a little to catch his eye one day. This was just the nature of a young woman realizing how much she was growing to like the opposite sex. When Tac passed through and waved at Emily her stomach immediately felt butterflies. It was a nice sensation.
Tac was a builder and when he left each morning it was off to a temporary job somewhere that demanded his hard labor. Leelu worked in town at a place called The Attic Shoppe of Curiosities, which was apparently some type of novelty and antique store. Leelu helped run the place. Her and Tac were out of the boarding house early and didn’t get back until dinner time.
Emily next met Flossie and she liked the strange woman instantly. Her given name was Flora Von Tree but most people addressed her by her cabaret name: Flossie Leather Feathers. The young woman loved that name and was intrigued about the older woman being a cabaret performer. It seemed somewhat exotic to her. As a result she peppered Flossie with questions whenever she saw her and Flossie was always good to cheerfully answer them all.
“You just come by my Bat Emporium in town sometime and I’ll tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cabaret. And all your ears can fill with town gossip.” she promised the younger woman and always gave her a wink.
As Emily was slowly introduced to some of the names of places in town she was starting to get an equally strange mental picture of the place. Minerva had explained Orange Moon Downs has having somewhat of a tourist attraction vibe to it and it did entertain a lot of out-of-towners. She emphasized though that these tourists weren’t like the type you might encounter at a side show attraction or things of that nature. These were people who came to the town with a purpose and a desire to know the place was real. It made the town seem almost like some hidden away myth.
Mythical or not, Orange Moon Downs was still off limits to Emily. Miss Emma was adamant that a town visit was not on the young woman’s schedule until she’d been at the boarding house for at least two weeks. “There is plenty to contend with here before we throw the town into the mix.” she said. This just made Emily want to visit it more. This was something she bemoaned to Minerva nearly every afternoon when they had lunch together.
“Oh my gawd, I want to see the town so bad!”
Minerva always shrugged a little dismissively. “You see one crazy town you’ve seen them all. I don’t bother much with it except to go in and see my society gals.”
Minerva’s society gals turned out to be two opposing tea groups. Emily was especially entertained whenever the old woman talked about them. The idea that two groups of people who focused on tea warred with one another tickled the young woman’s imagination. In Emily’s mind she pictured a perfectly polite and Victorian tea mafia.
On one side there was the Orange Moon Tea Society run by a woman named Aria Whet-jute Knot, who was also known as the Wormwood Queen for her absinthe recipes. On the other side was the Black Cat & Poisoned Tea Society run by a woman named Etta Diem, who was also known as the Black Dealer because she traded in cursed artifacts. As Minerva described it, if the two groups were to be described by artists and their art, Orange Moon was Alphonso Mucha and Black Cat was Edward Gorey. Being the kind of old woman Minerva was she was of course a member of both societies.
“Are you known as something other than Minerva in your tea societies?”
“Oh yeah…” Minerva nodded, causing her large bun of hair to bop up and down and her metal insect hairpins to click and ting. “I’m known as that old bat in the corner who never takes ‘get out’ as an order.”
Emily had giggled but in truth she could never tell when Minerva was joking or being serious. She had the same sort of gruff delivery of everything she said. It was like a light dose of crazy old woman who might throw a cat at you. Miss Emma had to tell her niece that most things Minerva Mox said were to be taken lightheartedly. That the gruffness was really just an act.
On Friday night of her first week at the boarding house Emily decided to ask Minerva if it was time that she could tell the young woman her story as promised on her first day.
The two of them were sitting on the open, second floor porch where Emily had her first meal with her great aunt and her old friend. This was actually the pair’s favorite place in the house. It was quiet and set apart from the places in the massive house that could get loud with activity at times. It offered a lovely view of the outlying lands around the place. And there was no better view of the stars overhead at night. Emily approved of the spot. In fact it has also become her favorite place, especially after the sun had set and the lightning bugs took to the surrounding fields.
“So what’s your story Minerva?” Emily asked. She’d waited for Miss Emma to excuse herself to take a bath before asking. Her poor aunt’s bones tended to get to her towards the end of the day. As her bones got to her a little of her patience for her niece’s curiosity grew thin.
Minerva was sitting in her rocking chair gently moving herself back and forth. She didn’t answer at first. She continued to look towards the heavens with a thoughtful expression on her old face.
In the candlelight Emily was able to see the old woman in a somewhat different light. The warm glow of the candle flame had a wonderful effect where it almost made all the old woman’s age lines smooth out. In that light Emily could almost see what a younger version of the woman looked like. Her features were very petite and had a very youthful quality to them; like the face of a teenage girl who had yet to grow into what her womanly face would finally look like. Emily could see Minerva having been a very pretty young woman.
Eventually Minerva pulled her dark shawl around her shoulders and sighed heavily. All of her gruffness was released with that sigh. Without it Minerva almost sounded like a teenage girl playing old woman dress up.
“My story… your aunt would probably kill me for sharing that with you so soon. But it’s a beautiful summer night and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. That’s a good time for a memory tale. There are storms forecast for next week… I don’t like storms so much. I can’t talk about myself when there is thunder around. And lightning… ”
She fell silent again. Her mind was drifting back in time and it was no easy thing for her to do. She had to be in the right head space though. When she spoke her voice was that of a teenage girl. It was something surreal to hear.
“I was about to turn eighteen. I lived in a very well to do estate with my parents during Victorian times. I never had to want for a thing. It was an absolute wonder I didn’t become a spoiled, self involved creature like many of my female counterparts of the time. I attribute this to the influence of my grandmother. She and my grandfather worked hard for the lavish lifestyle my mother was born into. And when my mother married rich and doubled her fortunes, my grandmother made a decision to make sure her grandchildren didn’t become soft like their parents. I was her only grandchild so that gave her a lot of free time to focus on me alone.
“When I was a child my grandmother read to me often. She never let the servants do the things I should be doing for myself; like cleaning my room or fetching my own things. She could be very course about it too. My grandmother did not mince words or suffer fools quietly. In that respect she was a little bit of an embarrassment for my parents in their polite Victorian society. I loved that about her though. I wanted to grow old one day and turn into the very same old creature who barked at people with such authority. I know that sounds odd but people really do need a bit of reality barked at them from time to time.
“My grandmother was my primary friend for most of my young life honestly. Then she passed away in her sleep one night. Our last goodnight has always haunted me a little. She tucked me in and kissed my fingertips one by one. She told me I was a good girl who was going to live an extraordinary life once I was able to get beyond my parents’ walls. She promised she’d always keep an eye on me because it might be a long time before she saw me again. And she said all of this so cheerfully I had the silly thought that she was going on a trip or something. So I asked her where she was going. She told me she was missing my grandfather and it was time to see him again. He’d died quite some time ago.
“The next morning she didn’t come down for breakfast so my mother sent a maid upstairs to see what was taking her so long. Soon the maid came rushing back and beckoned us all to grandmother’s room. She was there with her eyes closed looking quite peaceful. My mother made a pathetic but expected fool’s show of shock and disbelief over the scene. Not me though. I was silent. I felt like my whole world had been taken away from me. I was twelve at the time.
“The next many years were quite annoying for me. Without my grandmother there to bully my mother away when she tried to nag me into being a proper woman, she now had free range to shape me as she saw fit. I was sent to etiquette classes and made to learn how to play the piano. I was forced to take afternoon tea with her circle of friends and their daughters. I learned how to fit in but I was never really apart of polite society. I was never going to be what my mother wanted me to be. So I waited for my eighteenth birthday to come around. I had been smart enough at the age of sixteen to talk my mother into the idea that I could be a better lady if I was allowed to travel the world a bit. My father agreed but demanded I wait until I was eighteen. Not because I would be an adult; age was looked upon quite differently back then. He simply wanted me around a little longer to see if I could be successfully wed to another rich family. I did my best to quietly create a reputation to put such a thing off. Willful women were not treasured in those days.
“So I waited and I was on the eve of my eighteenth finally. My mother had a large party planned out for the next day. Everyone in her social circle was invited and she was determined to make it a very grand event that was talked about for weeks to come. I didn’t care about it. It was the last thing of my mother’s I had to weather before I was able to get on a train the following day and leave that place.
“I had a birthday tradition with my grandmother. We would get up very early to see the dawn. She would make me my own little tiny cake. It was always a quite decadent thing. It was not the neatly made thing my mother would have a proper baker prepare for me. This was a good chunk of rich chocolate cake and butter frosting that grandmother grew up on. And I got to eat it for breakfast with a nice glass of milk. All me! And I was allowed unsightly slicks of chocolate across my lips while eating it! Manners meant nothing in those moments. Only joy.
“The morning of my eighteenth birthday I woke early and was delighted to see the house cook had honored my grandmother’s tradition and had left a tiny cake for me. For a moment it felt like my grandmother was there with me. I just had to sneak off to her room and wake her up or wait for her to join me outside. I couldn’t go to her room, it would have ruined the illusion. So I instead went outside to continue to play pretend. The weather decided to ruin that illusion for me.
“When I went out into the tiny garden my grandmother once kept, the skies above were black. I had never seen such an angry sky out there with her. There was no rain yet but the skies looked absolutely overwhelmed with it. And in the middle of all of this, as if it were possible, there was one cloud that was actually darker than the rest. It looked like the color of the most angry bruise ever to be seen on human skin. Grandmother might have described it as God himself punching the sky. It was unsettling.
“I stood there staring at the evil thing and it was evil. I could feel it. It felt like it was staring right back at me. I remember whispering piss off at it and having it grumble right back. I should have gone back into the house right then. God only knows what my life might have been like if I had. But I didn’t. I stood there and glared angrily at it as if it was personally ruining my traditional birthday morning and then… it happened.”
Minerva fell silent. Emily watched her intently. As she told her story Emily could honestly see the teenage face of the woman in the candle flames. It didn’t seem like an optical illusion. She wanted desperately to know what happened to that young Minerva.
“What happened Minerva?” she whispered.
The old woman let out a small laugh as she thought about the absurdity of her tale, but she continued.
“I was struck by lightning.” Minerva said simply.
Emily understood the gravity of this. In her mind she was silently marveling over how this woman could have been struck by lightning and survived. Minerva was shaking her head slowly as if she read these thoughts.
“No… it wasn’t surviving the lightning strike that was the amazing thing that morning. I really wish it were. But no. That angry little black cloud bared down on me and struck me like a scorpion stinging and it changed me. It changed me completely. As I stood there in a state of shock it took my mother coming out of the house to show me just how badly it changed me.
“You see, the sound of the lightning strike was quite deafening. Everyone in the house heard it. My mother was up and rushing out of the house in her robe because she was worried it had hit the house and that her beautiful home might be on fire. She raced through different doorways until she finally came out into her mother’s garden. The look on her face when she saw me was not shock but immediate anger. She called me an old hag and demanded to know what I was doing on her property. Then she became more livid when she thought this old hag was wearing her daughter’s expensive robe.
“She ranted at me and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then I looked down at my hands and didn’t see my own. I saw withered old hands much like the memory of my grandmother’s hands. I grabbed at my hair and looked upon a thick locket of sheer white hair in place of my black locks. I touched my face and felt the age lines… the wrinkles. I went into a state of shock.
“I reached out for my mother and called to her. That look of anger on my mother’s face turned to horror. I was begging my mother to tell me what was going on and she was trying to block out the sound of her daughter’s voice coming from this old woman.
“My father soon found his wife and came out into the garden as well. He started to ask who I was but my mother was ordering him into the house. She demanded he go into town and bring the doctor back. And then, finally, she came to me and took my hands. She led me into the house. To this day I can remember how her hands trembled as they held mine.
“There are many details to what came next but they’re not really important. The doctor came and determined that while my outside body had somehow turned into that of an old woman, my heart and vitals sounded just as strong as any young woman’s should. No one could explain what had happened to me. Nobody wanted to explain it. My mother just sat there staring at me with such a look in her eyes. Her mind had ceased to process what had happened to her daughter and instead was focusing on how I was once again trying to ruin her reputation with her society friends. I have always tried to forgive her this reaction. I consider it how she tried to cope without going mad.
“My father wanted to call in experts; what experts he thought there might be in the world to study such a thing as what happened to me I honestly don’t know. He was simply being a male who wanted to go about things in an orderly manner that made sense. He wanted to fix me. My mother didn’t want me to be seen while he tried to fix me. She wanted him to find his experts and send me away to them.
“I was never terribly close to my parents but I am only human. Their reaction to me broke my heart. Had my grandmother been there she would have held me close and told me I could come bark at people with her… how fun that would be. She would have sought to comfort me in that terrified state. But my parents were not her and they did not know how to deal with such a… surreal and unnatural turn of events. I have my anger with them but in those moments, knowing them as I did, I didn’t blame them for their reactions.
“The party went on as planned. Everyone was told I had come down with an illness. No one missed me. I think my mother was actually relieved honestly. She got her fabulous event without the potential misstep of the young woman it was being thrown for. I locked myself away in my grandmother’s old room.
“I stayed out of sight of everyone in the house. I had made a decision. I took my travel cases, that were already packed for my departure, and emptied them of most things. In their place I packed all of my grandmother’s dark colored clothes. I took her jewelry and her hair adornments. I took a photo of her and grandfather and a few things that had sentimental value for me and I left for the train station. I meant to keep my travels. I knew I could send a letter to my parents explaining my decision to leave and I knew they would keep me funded during my travels if it kept my dirty secret hidden.
“It was an odd sensation stepping onto that train platform. There were no men there trying to give me an unseen once over. No one called me miss or young lady. Men tipped their hats to me in a respectful fashion and the train porters asked me if I needed help. I was an old woman and everyone treated me like one. There was my consolation. When a child accidentally stepped on my toe I barked at him like a proper old grouch and he wasn’t allowed to say anything back to me. His mother, just as polite and proper as my mother, ignored my words and instead scolded her son and told him to apologize to the nice lady. Later on that little boy, still wounded by my words, would peer around a train seat and stick his tongue out at me. I would give him the equivalent of the middle finger for that time. I relished the look of shock on his spoiled, little boy face.
“’Don’t you have moxie!’ this older gentleman across from me had laughed. I liked that. I told him damn if I don’t! We talked for a bit and he asked me my name. My given was Agnes Primworth. I told him my name was Minerva Mox. Minerva was my grandmother’s name. Mox was for the moxie I was about to unleash upon the world.”
She paused, a wide but still somewhat sad smile crossed her lips. “It’s been quite a life.” she said thoughtfully. “Quite a life indeed.”
Emily was mesmerized by everything she just heard. “Minerva? Hold old are you?”
Minerva smiled, having saved the very best part for last. “Well dear I was born in 1872 so… quite old. But there’s the trick of that black cloud that smacked me: It made me an old woman on the outside but forever preserved the young woman on the inside. Time does nothing to my heart and it barely registers on my brain. I may know quite a bit more than I did as that young woman but I’ve never grown out of being that young woman. I don’t keep your aunt’s company because we are both old women. I keep it because she reminds me of that relationship I had with my grandmother. And I need that stability to keep me from going mad.She’s also the very first person I ever told my story to who believed me without a second thought. She took me into her home and helped me…” she paused and tapped her head. The candle light shifted and she was an old woman again. “Miss Emma helped me chase some of the bats starting to roost in this old mental belfry of mine. The woman does like her strange strays.”
The room was silent. Emily was quietly digesting everything she was just told. Given Minerva’s personality she was waiting for the woman to claim it was all a joke just when the young woman was deciding to believe her. But Emily honestly knew this wasn’t the case. It was the voice. Throughout the whole retelling of her experiences the old woman’s voice that Minerva used around everyone was no where. Her voice was exactly that of someone who sounded barely older than Emily herself. It was a voice locked inside of a person who was visually so much older.
“I believe you. If you’re pulling my leg please don’t tell me.” Emily offered. “I’m sorry that happened to you and all that you must have gone through or missed out in life because of what happened to you, but knowing this means you make sense. I like you making that kind of sense.”
This caused Minerva to laugh. When she spoke her voice was old and gruff again but there was nothing but warmth being expressed in it. “Oh child you are so precious. You are your mother’s child.
The night was slowly moving along and the desire to talk further was not there for either person. Minerva was content to look at the stars overhead and Emily was content to be quiet as she sneaked looks at the old woman and tried to imagine what kind of life she’d lived having been young and old at the same time.
Eventually Minerva stood up and stretched. You could almost tell the hour of the night by the state of decline in her bun. When her untidy bun of hair had gone from just floppy to a precariously loose state just a few more hair falls from releasing all of the hair pins she had tucked in there, it was safe to assume it was about eleven o’clock.
“Bedtime kiddo. At least for me.” Minerva moved slowly for the door, the perfect model of an elderly woman. She stopped and looked over her shoulder and offered the younger woman a smirk that could only be summed up as scandalous. “And just for the record I haven’t missed out on a thing in life. If it could be done I did it. I’ll tell you some of my better stories. And maybe, when you’re older…” the scandalous smirk went to straight out devious, “I’ll tell you some of my saucier stories. Goodnight kiddo.”’
Emily grinned as she watched the impostor old woman shuffle through the porch door. The young woman let her eyes move back to the surrounding land where the lightning bugs were making everything look like nature had created its own flicking lantern lights. It could have been described as the fields having their own blinking, movable star map. For a moment the field constellation of an angry urban sweet potato was quite visible. A few minutes later it was gone and the field constellation of Mab and Pearl was glowing bright.
Emily moved over to the porch’s railing and leaned over it as she looked closer at the field in front of her. She was quite sure she saw Miss Emily, Leelu and Tac makes appearances. The tree squirrel and little Sigrid popped up and maybe that faint pattern off in the distance was the still unseen occupant of the tree. The only constellation that didn’t make itself known was that of Minerva Mox. Emily chalked this up to the old woman most likely never wanting to have anything to do with lightning again… even in the form of a simple lightning bug.
Next: Chapter III
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