Instructor: Jennifer Seward
The year was 1839. It was raining in Bristol. Dreary clouds blocked out the sun as a cold chill settled around the city. An austere grey building sat nestled between a few well-groomed trees, the grounds guarded by a high iron fence. Large letters arched above the fence, reading, "Bristol Asylum for Orphan Girls." A sad-looking girl gazed out of one of the windows, her forehead resting on the glass, a small locket wrapped around her fingers. She sat, her legs crossed beneath her grubby grey skirt, on a tiny cot she shared with two other girls. Their frail bodies rose and fell with every breath, concealed under one thin, shabby blanket that barely reached to their knees. Looking down, the little girl popped open her locket with a finger, caressing the tiny black and white picture inside. In the picture was another girl, a bit older, her dark hair mid-length, a glint in her eyes revealing the spirit behind the solemn expression. She looked remarkably like the locket's owner. The child smiled at the picture, then closed the locket with a tiny click. Suddenly, she felt an unnatural chill run down her spine. A floorboard creaked on the other side of the room. Whipping her head around, she searched for what had made the noise. The sound woke the girl lying next to her.
The girl stirred, lifting her head and rubbing sleep from her eyes. "Ophelia?" she asked.
"Go back to sleep, Millie," Ophelia muttered, her eyes locked on the spot. Millie lifted herself up off the bed.
"What are you staring at?"
"Nothing," Ophelia said, putting her locket back into the pocket of her skirt. "It's nothing." She glanced back at Millie, whose face had fallen.
"Congratulations," Millie said, a forced smile on her face. Ophelia looked over at her, sure she hadn't mistaken the contempt in her voice. Of course. Today was the day that the couple she had met a week ago was going to take her home. Today was the day she was getting adopted.
Ophelia and Millie had never been close. For most of her time here, Ophelia had had someone else to spend her days with. But now that someone wasn't there. All Millie had ever been was a fellow loner. Someone to sit with in relative silence while they ate their meals or distanced themselves from the chattering crowds of girls. She knew Millie was jealous, but she appreciated the effort she was making to seem as if she was pleased for her "friend."
"I suppose it is," she said.
Millie, sensing that Ophelia needed some time to herself, slipped back under the dirty little blanket. Within minutes, Ophelia heard her breath become soft and slow. She looked back at the corner, hoping for another sign, but obviously she hadn't seen what she had wanted to see. With a sigh, she too ducked under the shabby blanket and drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
When Ophelia woke next, it was to a faint glow wafting in through the window. Girls bustled around, making their beds and chatting with their friends. She slipped out of the cot, folded the blanket, then pulled her hair back with a grey strip of fabric she had torn off of it. Sticking her hand in her pocket, she fingered the locket, pressing her fingers against the cool, smooth metal. A shuffling of bodies told her that the girls were leaving the cramped sleeping quarters. Pushed along by the crowd, she found herself tripping through a musty hall and down a hard, steep stairway, all the while listening to the rhythm of worn-out shoes on stone steps. They emptied out into a large hall, the darkness broken by light streaming in from a row of small windows near the ceiling. The rest of the long tables were already filled with girls, each with their eyes fixed upon the head table. Ophelia sat next to Millie and turned to look at the head table like the other girls. A rigid woman rose from her place in the center of the table. Her hair was pulled back in a bun so tight her skin was visibly stretching. Her beak-like nose and beady eyes made her resemble a bird so much, Ophelia was almost surprised that when she spoke, words came out rather than a squawk.
"Girls!" Her shrill voice cut through the hall, silencing the few girls who had been engaged in conversation. "Before we dine, I would like to remind you all that one of your number will be leaving today. We wish Ophelia Cromwell the best in her new life."
Ophelia wanted to bury her face in her hands as every eye in the hall turned to watch her. The woman waited a few seconds before continuing.
"Now, girls, bow your heads." The girls leaned down. Another woman rose to recite a prayer. Ophelia closed her eyes. She knew she should be grateful to be invited into a new family. Few orphans got that chance, especially since childless couples usually wanted babies and she was nearing eleven, but she couldn't help it. She had this horrible, nagging feeling that if she left, she would never see her again and she would lose that one last connection she had with her family. As the woman finished the prayer, Ophelia opened up her eyes to chorus "Amen" with the other girls. She then turned her attention to her breakfast, a scoop of sticky grey oatmeal. Colorless and cold, always the same morning meal. She squeezed her eyes shut and took a bite. The gruel felt sludgy and slimy in her mouth. That was one good thing about leaving the orphanage: She would never have to eat these sad meals again.
After breakfast, Ophelia and a group of girls her age were taken to a classroom to practice their Rs- wRiting, Reading, aRithmetic. Ophelia obediently sat rigid in her chair as the class went on, though her mind was a million miles away. Usually, she tried to pay attention, but today she couldn't care less. She knew the instructor wouldn't use the cane on her when she was leaving so soon. As students stood at the front of the classroom and recited sections from the reader, she wondered what her new family would be like.
The group shuffled to the dining hall again to eat lunch. Ophelia took a tray and lined up to be served cold broth with a few potato peelings floating on the surface and a stale slice of bread. Wrinkling her nose at the meal, she made her way to one of the long tables, choosing her usual spot next to Millie. Neither of them spoke a word as they sipped their broth and nibbled their bread. With a slam that startled the both of them, an older, mean-looking girl set down her tray and slid onto the bench in front of them. She glared at Ophelia.
"Why would anyone want you?" It was more of an accusation than a question. This girl had been one of Ophelia's chief tormentors for longer than she could remember. Beside her, Millie continued eating, her eyes downcast.
"Go away, Mags," Ophelia mumbled. She hated conflict. Mindlessly, her hand went to her pocket.
"Whatcha got it in there?" Mags asked. Ophelia, who now had the locket in her hand, wasn't ready for it, but she still managed to dodge the swipe Mags made at her. But Mags had seen the trinket. Her eyes glinted.
"Come on, give it to me. You got the whole world out there. Leave something for the rest of us." She made another swipe, but Ophelia backed away.
"Stop!" she cried. She couldn't lose the locket. She could feel the eyes of the watching crowd waiting to see her reaction.
"Your sissy's not around to protect you anymore, is she? Where is she, Ophelia?" Mockingly, Mags looked around at the crowd of girls. "Where is she? Oh right, she's dead!" Mags cackled.
Then it happened. The glint of something silver behind Mags' head, the sudden chill in the air, the improbable breeze, the locket growing warm, almost hot in her hands. An invisible force pushed Mags forward, showing her face with a splat into her bowl of broth. She struggled for a second, as if something were holding her head in place, then she emerged, coughing. A potato peel was stuck to her forehead and she was dripping with the smelly stuff. The surrounding girls started laughing.
"Freak!" she spluttered. Just in time, Ophelia saw the official-looking woman walking briskly down the tables to the scene. Ophelia swiveled and sprinted out of the hall.
"Thank you," she whispered into the air.
Ophelia hid in the dormitory for a bit, but the authoritative woman entered soon after.
"Care to explain what happened?" she asked. Ophelia shook her head. The woman sat on the edge of the cot. After a pause, she said, "Not many children are as lucky as you. You have the chance for another family." Ophelia shifted uncomfortably. Yes, she was lucky. But she didn't want to leave this place. She couldn't leave. But it was impossible to explain this feeling. The woman sighed. "You must miss her so much," she said with such tenderness in her voice that Ophelia was taken aback. Before she could adjust to this shift in character, the woman rose abruptly, brushing off her dull grey skirt. Regaining her usual brisk manner, she looked at Ophelia and said, "You may stay in here for the remainder of the day if you wish." She strode out of the room.
Ophelia dug under her cot for a small, rusted, tin box that contained all of her possessions from her former life. Her family had been whole then, her parents happy and healthy, her sister just the same. The epidemic had taken everything, everything but her sister. She pulled out an old, tattered book. Flipping it open to the first page, she saw a note scrawled on the paper. To Cora. Love, Mother. A tear leaked from the corner of her eye, dripped down her face, and splattered onto the page. Wasn't the loss of her parents enough? What cruel circumstances would take a young, broken girl and tear her sister away just when her life finally felt secure?
"Where are you?" she choked. "I need you." And then she was there. On the edge of the cot where the rigid woman had sat was another girl, thirteen years of age, the girl from the locket. Her body left no impression on the mattress. She was barely there, just a whisper of an imprint of herself. Wordlessly, she stretched out a pale, transparent arm and pointed at the book.
That was how they spent the next few hours, flipping through the book of poetry their mother had passed on to Cora. Ophelia read aloud and Cora sat, her eyes closed, soaking in the words. Ophelia read until her voice became hoarse and sunset streamed through the window. She looked up and saw Cora's eyes trained on her face.
"When I leave, will you go with me?" Ophelia asked, finally voicing the worry that had all but consumed her. She knew the answer before Cora shook her head, saw it in her bright blue eyes, the only part of her that was pigmented. Ophelia's eyes welled up with tears again. "I don't want to leave you! You can't leave me! I need you!" she was crying even harder now. Cora tilted her head to look at the sobbing girl. Her lips parted and she said, "You needed me." They were the first words Ophelia had heard her say since that night a year ago, when Cora had lain in bed, head slick with sweat, body burning with fever. She was about to reply when a maid bustled into the room.
"Come along, dear," the maid said, guiding Ophelia out of the room. "You're going to a new home." Ophelia wished she could retreat, go back and stay with Cora. Instead, she let herself be directed into the rigid woman's office. The woman sat behind a desk, talking to a young couple, their backs to Ophelia. She clasped the locket in her pocket. She wasn't ready to go.
The young woman turned around, her dark auburn hair tied back in a knot and her green eyes shining. Her face broke into a wide smile. She rose and walked to Ophelia, who reluctantly stepped forward to meet her. The woman handed her a doll she had been concealing behind her back.
"Hello, Ophelia," she said, still grinning. Ophelia gave her a tentative smile back. The man strolled over to her and smiled, too. Awkwardly, he patted her shoulder. The couple clasped hands. After a bit more talking, they led her out of the orphanage and toward a small carriage. All the while, the woman held her hand. At the bottom of the stone steps, Ophelia stopped, making the lady stop, too.
"What is it, dear?" she asked. When she saw Ophelia's expression as she looked at the orphanage, she gave her hand a squeeze and said, "We'll wait in the carriage." Ophelia nodded.
She stood, staring at the place that had been her home. She had grown up here. Her sister had died here. Just as she thought this, she saw the faint outline of Cora on the top of the steps. It was there only for a second before the wind blew it away. Ophelia thought about what Cora had said. She had needed her. And suddenly, she understood. The moment she left the orphanage, she would start a new life with a new family. Her sister couldn't leave her old life. This couple would take care of her now, not her sister. Cora would finally be able to rest now that Ophelia was safe. Ophelia turned and climbed into the carriage. She watched as the form of the orphanage and all the people in it slipped away from her view. And finally, finally, she let go.