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It was lucky for little Miranda that in the earliest days of her life, she did not understand exactly what had happened at the Confraternity of Things To Be. Or more precisely, the word that had been pronounced upon her, like the certainty of death.
The word lurked around the corners of Cygnet Hall. It groaned with every dry hinge and sang from the cook’s best kettles. It shouted on the winter winds that whipped about the house and clattered amongst the crystal at the nightly dining table.
“I’m afraid she is totally and completely ordinary.” Brother Number Ten’s words sank into the carpets and clung to the wainscot like varnish. “Not a shred of genius about her. Very unlikely she’ll be accepted by the League.”
Not that any Clutchian outside the Gauges’ household would have noticed, of course.
Publicly the Baron and Baroness Gauge rejoiced in the seven pounds and five ounces of chaos who quickly smudged up their well-polished dignity. In fact, the Clutchian Herald reported the Baron and his Lady to be quite confident in the results of their daughter’s pronouncement.
In the wake of this half truth, the Baron was forced to erect an entirely new greenhouse just to house the flowering plants sent by his well-wishing fellow Marvelosities. (The Baron, of course, preferred to call them his “well-chagrinned rivals”).
A new bank account was also in order, to hold the avalanche of golden good luck coins for which there was no room in the already overstuffed family vault. Add to that a stream of honorable guests calling upon the little family, perhaps less from kindness and more from good Clutchian curiosity about the would-be heiress.
But all this was little antidote to the despair that plagued Miranda’s loved ones in their less frenetic hours. Day and night, her father paced the hall of the family’s private rooms, muttering and moaning about what might happen to them all when Miranda’s poor reading actually came true.
So severe was his agitation, and his tread, that the hallway carpet had to be replaced. Not to mention a wet nurse engaged, to feed Miranda so that her mother might comfort her catatonic husband instead of her child.
For her part, Miranda seemed not to notice the hullabaloo she brought to her gilded world. She ate quite a lot. She slept even more. And (if The Herald were to be believed, of course) soiled her diapers with clockwork regularity. Miranda cooed when her rattle was shaken and refused to sleep without a well-stuffed white bear that had arrived in an unmarked box among a pile of other gifts.
When the first flowers bloomed, she cut a tooth. By the time the leaves changed color again, she had lisped out her first word. (Cutter told the Baron it was “papa,” but Zelle assured the cook, the driver and the footmen that it was really “baba,” referring to the bear.)
When Spring rolled around once more, and gaggles of cygnets paddled on the Gauge’s garden lake, Miranda took her first steps toward them, on the shore.
She landed promptly in the water.
Thus Miranda passed her first year in relative comfort, with no hint of the cloud above her. She grew into a round, ruddy cherub with a personality nearly as bouncy as her chestnut curls. Morning and night her laughter echoed through the upstairs hallway. All trace of her father’s distress was meticulously hidden from her wide brown eyes.
When she had attained ripe old age of two, Miranda began to visit her mother in the snow-white boudoir where she herself had entered the world, and where the Baroness now spent all her waking hours when her husband was out on business. Miranda toddled in each day at exactly half past three, her eyes bright from a nap, her pinafore well-starched, her white bear dangling from one hand.
Her mother always held out her arms, welcoming Miranda to climb inside them and nest there like the baby birds outside the window. “Hello little Duckling,” she would whisper, stroking Miranda’s curls. “How are you today?”
“Bear,” Miranda would reply. (This was still the only word she had learned —if one follows Zelle’s interpretation of baba, and not Cutter’s, that is.)
“Yes, your bear is welcome, too. What does he want to read today?”
“That sounds like a very good idea to me.”
And so together, mother and daughter would select a book—a fairy story, on most occasions, from a stash the Baroness kept behind her settee. The Baron did not know they existed, of course; if he had, that pile of treasure would have disappeared faster than Miranda could say “bear,” and not into the family vault. But the Baroness was a discreet woman, and as Miranda’s vocabulary remained so highly selective, both the lady and Cutter assumed their secret was safe. For a little while, at least.
To Miranda the boudoir was a place straight from a fairytale: one of those magical lands of eternal winter, doomed to sleep under a quilt of snow until some marvelous heroine melted it with the rays of the sun.
And how could she help finding it so delightful?
Wherever she looked, lace dangled from one thing or another, be it from the cloths that draped the wicker furnishings, or the linens on the delicate daybed, or the frosty curtains that let in just a hint of light.
Icicle-shaped crystals, too, hung from the lampshades, tossing rainbows across a snow-white rug that stretched all the way to a fireplace of icy marble. There was even a fluffy white quilt on the daybed, which—if Miranda jumped and fell upon it just so—would reward her with a puff of white feathers that tickled her skin like snowflakes.
Such a delightful room it was! And how Miranda did love to explore it, especially if the Baroness dozed off over their pages of fairies. The lace demanded to be pulled, the crystals plucked and sucked like lollipops. Rouge from the Baroness’s dressing table looked beautiful on the rug. Sometimes on the curtains, too.
As the months passed, Miranda’s antics grew legendary. So much so, that the merest echo of her giggle was enough to send Cutter and Zelle charging into the boudoir, armed with rattles, dolls, and all manner of distracting fancies.
“Oh me! Oh my!” Zelda would gasp as she whisked Miranda from amid whatever mischief she had found. “I declare, you such an ornithological child!”
“Ornery,” corrected Cutter, rescuing a crystal from Miranda’s mouth and returning it to its proper hook on the lamp. “Really, Zelle, must’n you always choose a bigger word than necess’ry? The dictionary is full of short ‘uns, ya know.”
Zelle thrust the white bear into Miranda’s arms. “Short words is perdictable, Cutter. An’ the long ones is more likely to rhyme. Like, you know, incorrigiable? That’s a good word. Fits Miss Miranda, an’ it’s so much more inter’sting than naughty. Rhymes with dirrigiable, too. You know, them great big flying machines?”
Cutter buried her face in her apron, but Miranda nodded sagely.
“Bear,” she said, and hugged her toy close.
At this point in the daily ritual, whilst Miranda enjoyed top billing in the maids’ latest drama, a predictable second act would ensue. There would be talk of locking the boudoir, or of keeping a nurse present at all Miranda’s visits. Maybe even of withholding the Young Miss’s supper as a kind of remonstrance.
But those conversations never lasted long.
Invariably, before the maids could whisk the small explorer off to her punishment, the Baroness would startle awake, waving their black frocks away with one of her delicate, blue-veined hands.
“Oh Cutter,” she would sigh from her pillow. “She’s only a small girl, you know, and an Ordinary one at that. Let’s her have her fun for a bit, shall we? Heaven knows it will all be over too soon.”
“Pardon my forwardness, Mum, but me and Zelle here is as ordin’ry as they come, and we had no cause t’ do such things when we was young.”
It was Zelle’s turn to look cross. “That’s not fair, Cutter! Why, just the other day, you said I was a real special ‘un! Didn’t ya?”
“Aye, I did, Missy,” Cutter muttered. “But mark my words, there’s a good bit o’ difference between your brand o’ special and a Marvelosity.”
The Baroness sighed. “Special or ordinary or Marvelosity . . . or not . . . you are not to keep my daughter from exploring this room. Do you understand?”
Cutter always curtsey with the same response. “Aye, Mum. As you wish, Mum. But sooner or later, this un’s gonna move up from the rug and on t’ yer quilt there, Mum. Anna how would yer Ladyship feel about that?”
Though Miranda did not join this conversation, she knew what it meant. She even looked to the wall opposite the Baroness’s bed, where, in all its colorful glory, hung the only non-white decor in the room. It was a very large crazy quilt: a profusion of fabrics and ribbon, lace and trim. The kind that anyone would consider a true work of art, held together with a few hundred thousand stitches and a wardrobe of cast-off baubles.
Miranda threw back her head and laughed with delight. Oh, what baubles and ribbons they were!
At this moment, the Baroness held out her arms and took Miranda from Zelle, all while staring at the quilt herself. “If she gets onto that, Cutter, it might truly be the best thing she ever does. Now run along, you and Zelle both.”
And so it happened, Dear Reader, that one day, when Miranda was nearly three years old, she did get onto the quilt. The Baroness herself took it off the wall and spread it on top her bed. When it had fairly landed in its place, Miranda jumped off one pillow, landing tummy-first on the multicolored pane.
The fabric felt delicious against her fingers. Some of it was bumpy, some of it was smooth. There were ridges, and ruffles, ribbons and bows.
No matter where Miranda touched, she felt something wonderful. And when she laid her cheek against the quilt, it welcomed her with a scratchy-soft kiss.
Miranda’s mother soon lay beside her, too. They stared up together at the ceiling, where white plaster flowers danced through a labyrinth of vines equally snowy and delicate. Miranda hugged her bear close and listened with unusual attention as her mother talked about the quilt.
“Your Aunt Alpha made it for us, to help us follow her travels.” Propping herself up on one elbow, the Baroness pointed to a red velvet circle in one corner of the design, with a gold M embroidered over top of it. “See this? It’s Clutch, the city where we live, and where all your papa’s factories are located. And the blue ribbon, there? That is the River Crank that flows through town. And what do you suppose is this wide strip of brown flannel over here, with all those feathery stitches?”
(The answer the Baroness was hoping for was “The Mountains of Mishap.”) But Miranda merely smiled at her mother and blinked her wide brown eyes.
“Bear,” she said.
If she were chagrined, the Baroness managed not to show it. “Yes, there are bears in the Mountains of Mishap, and a great many other things, too, if you believe the stories. That was your auntie’s weakness, you know.”
Miranda settled Bear right on top of the tallest mountain and kissed his worn fur cheek.
Then she scrambled onto her knees as her mother continued: “Such a big world it is, my Duckling! You now, Alpha once told me there are a great many things in the world that your Papa and all the people of Clutch do not believe in. She told me that she wanted to find these things, and prove them to be true. At the time, I thought it was a wonderful idea. I did not truly believe she would choose them over us.”
By now, Miranda had left Bear to guard the mountains and was crawling north, over a dappled green forest of velveteens to an expanse of white cotton flecked with tiny blue dots.
“That’s the Never-Ending Woods, and the snow fields of Ultima Thule,” her mother said. “You’re almost to the End of the World now, Duckling. That’s where your auntie went: to the place where the dragons and the faeries and the great white bears have fled, the ones she called ‘polar bears.’” The Baroness clapped her hands around her daughter’s waist. “Do you know remember those bears say? Do you?”
(The proper word, of course, was ROAR!)
Miranda thought for a moment, considering her options. “Bear,” she said, as if struck with the idea. “Bear, bear . . . BEAR!”
Tears glistened in the Baroness’s eyes.
“I suppose you should wish to see a bear, rather than a dragon. They’re much warmer but far less inclined to arson. If that sort of thing were real, of course.” She reached one hand past Miranda’s shoulder to touch the very last tip of white land—so white that it was no longer the cotton, but a pure satin that shone in the lamplight. “Maybe bears and dragons are real at the End of the World, but we’ll never know unless Alpha writes to tell us. She could have been great, you know: great in the League. Great in Clutch. But she loved stories too much, my Duckling. She loved the fairies, and she chased them.”
At this last phrase, Miranda turned to her mother with sparkling eyes. She promptly somersaulted to the edge of the bed and leapt off, landing on a portion of the rug that was still pink from her last escapade with rouge.
From there, Miranda ran all the way to the settee, wiggled behind it and pulled out a book from the forbidden stash. On the cover, a merry sprite danced among rosebuds, clad in a plum gauze frock and slippers that twinkled like stars.
Miranda ran back to her mother waving the book. “Fairy!” she cried, with all the pride of her accomplishment. “Fairy. Fairy. Fae-rie!”
The book landed in the startled Baroness’s lap. It was soon followed by her daughter, still mumbling the new word to herself with exceeding joy.
“Why yes, Little Duckling,” the Baroness gasped. “This is the book about fairies. And how clever you are with your words! Though you must hush your voice when you say them, and promise me never to utter such things in the presence of your papa.”
The Baroness opened it the fairy book to the first page. Miranda peered at the flyleaf, which was empty of fairies but contained quite a few faded squiggles, arranged in four neat lines.
Her mother read them aloud:
This book belongs to
Baronness Alpha Isadora Euphemia Gauge
(soon to be a world-famous explorer)
who as of this day is eight years old.
Miranda’s ruddy hand shot past her mother’s pale one, turning the page to the first fairy picture: a laughing sprite who drank great drops of water from a rain-fed leaf.
A moment later, real drops splashed upon the picture, darkening spots of color. Miranda looked up in surprise. Her mother’s face was glistening. Miranda reach up her two small hands and pulled the wet cheek close.
“Fairy,” Miranda whispered in her mother’s ear. “Fairy and dragon and bear.”
“Very good, my little Duckling,” sobbed the Baroness. “Very good indeed, but you must remember the fairies are not real and neither are dragons or the polar bears. They are only in the stories, and no matter how beautiful our home may be, Cygnet Hall is not in a story. It is in Clutch. And in Clutch, there are no stories—at least, not so far as your papa is concerned.”
Miranda ought to have nodded her head like a good girl, but she was too busy turning the pages of the book, her eyes aglow and her cheeks as red as the cloth circle with its fancy gold “M.”
Her mother stroked her hair gently. “It is not that the stories are untrue, that makes your father so sad. It is that your Auntie Alpha loved them. And because she loved them . . . she left him.”
Here, Miranda squealed—mostly because the fairy on the next page was floating a toy boat in a teacup. But it was an appropriate sentiment, at least. Daughter and mother sat in silence until long past the time when the last ray of light had died behind the curtains.
Miranda turned the pages one by one, and her mother watched, leaning her cheek on her daughter’s soft curls.
“You are fortunate that you are so Ordinary, my Duckling,” the Baroness said, when tea was served at last. “Perhaps all those golden coins in the bank have brought you some good luck after all.”
Little could Miranda or her mother have guessed how soon this good luck would end.
* * *
©2015 by Lisa Walker England – All Rights Reserved
The League of Marvelosities is a serialized steampunk novel that releases one new chapter every other week.
About the Illustration: Toddler Miranda and her fairy and dragon are made of needle-turned applique finished in blanket stitch. Materials include vintage baby clothes, scraps from my husband’s grandmother’s quilt, thrift-store treasures, and cast-off dresses formerly worn by me. The background is made of cotton I hand-dyed with Bengala Eco Dye #21.