Chapter 3- Kenward Farm
Ancient gray buildings, sunken in the hill behind them, began to reveal themselves as Rowan and Mai moved steadily towards them. It was a place as ancient as Ravensmere, or more. Rowan looked at the top of the hill and saw something, some structure, though she wasn't quite sure what it was. Mai pulled the truck up and stopped.
"Here we are, Kenward Farm. Home for me, my husband, my son, and you, temporarily at least. Let's get some food," Mai said, happily. The kitten jumped off Rowan's lap with a mind of her own, and sauntered into the house like she's lived there all her life. Rowan followed more slowly. The house seemed almost too old to still be standing. The walls of the massive building were gray and the roof sagging and covered with lichen. There was a huge porch that led up to a door like a church. The smaller buildings flanking it were also gray and also old. Rowan copied Mai in banging her shoes off at the boot-scraper by the door and followed her into the stone-flagged kitchen.
"Here, you can wash up at the sink and take a seat while I find something for us to eat." Mai pointed out the sink for Rowan and turned her back to her, rifling through the pantry. Rowan followed the finger, and thoroughly washed her hands up to her elbows, and on second though, her face. She walked over to the worn wooden table and gingerly took a seat on one of the chairs. Mai walked over, dumped a plate of sandwiches on the table, and sank into another chair.
"Your kitten got milk, and it's cheese sandwiches on the menu for us today, I guess. Simple fare but satisfying, and it'll hold you over until dinner. Go on, dig in," Mai said, following her own advice. Rowan gingerly took a sandwich and bit into it, thinking that the slightly melted cheese on bread was close to the best thing she had ever tasted. Shortly, the plateful was gone between them.
"Well, with our stomachs taken care of, it's time for the next matter of business. I have a son about your size- I'm sure he won't mind loaning you some clothes until we can get yours washed. So, it's into the shower for you, and I'll see about finding you some clothes. I'll be in the kitchen again by the time you're done." Rowan blushed. She was ashamed that she was filthy, her clothes were filthy, and she longed desperately to be clean. She followed Mai upstairs, where they stopped at a bathroom and Mai handed her a clean towel, then left.
Rowan stepped out of the bathroom wrapped in the towel, feeling sparkly clean. She had even managed to get her knotted, greasy hair cleaned and it felt good on her neck. She noticed clothing stacked on a chair, and took it back into the bathroom. It was just jeans and a t-shirt, but they were clean. She hadn't had truly clean clothes since before she lived with Mrs. Carenswood. The feeling of the fabric sliding against her skin felt wonderful. She shivered in delight at the sensation. There was a hairbrush sitting on top of the counter, but Rowan hesitated borrowing it. However, her want overcame her hesitation and she used it forcibly against her wet hair. Most of the mats had disappeared in her liberal use of soap, but she took care of the smaller tangles and got it to lie flat against her head. Carefully, she pulled out all the hair that had gotten stuck to the bristles and started back towards the kitchen. There was something about cleanliness and putting on clean clothes that changed a person. Clothing was like armor, and hers had been darned, patched, mended, and filthy.
Rowan stopped suddenly at the head of the stairs. There were voices down there- Mai's, a lower man's voice, and higher boy's voice. Probably the husband and son that Mai had mentioned earlier. The apprehension that had started to fade away was back full force at the strange voices. They were talking softly and Rowan couldn't make out what they were saying she was caught between going down there and staying up there. Mai had hinted for her to go back to the kitchen when she was done. She obviously didn't belong down there. Warring with the desire to please was the fear of the people. Mai was nice, but that didn't mean the rest of the family would be as accepting. Slowly, gathering her courage in ribbons to her, Rowan softly tread down the stairs, stopping at the foot.
The scene before her looked as though she'd always imagined a family to be. Even the kitten fit the family scene- lapping up dry cat food from a saucer on the windowsill. Mai was moving proficiently around the kitchen, undoubtedly preparing dinner. A man was seated at the kitchen table, set for dinner, talking to Mai. His back was to Rowan and all she could see of him was broad shoulders, a relaxed posture, and short, curly ginger-colored hair. Next to him, a boy was seated. He looked slightly younger than Rowan, and was the oddest mix of Mai and her husband that Rowan ever saw. He had the golden brown skin of his mother and the curly red hair of his father. His eyes were dark and slanted slightly, like Mai's. It was he who saw her.
"Hullo," he said. His voice was cheerful, boyish soprano and he gave a wide steady smile. "Mum, she's come down." Mai turned around and looked at her.
"Rowan, come meet my son, Jamie and my husband, James," she said, coming to stand by the man who had just risen from his chair. He held out a hand.
"Hello Rowan, I'm pleased to meet you," he said, the low tenor that Rowan had heard earlier. She reached out and put her own hand into his. He shook it softly and gave it back to us.
"Hello, Mr. Kenward," she said softly, taking a quick futile glance to his face. He was fair-skinned under just a touch of a summer's tan, and had soft, cheerful brown eyes that smiled at her.
"It's James- we don't hold with that sort of the thing at home. You remember that," he said, almost laughing. She nodded her head in agreement, not trusting her voice. He steered her down to a seat next to him, across from the boy- Jamie, his name is Jamie, she reminded herself- and she obediently sat in the chair that he pulled out for her. It was awkward- no one had ever pulled out a chair for her and waited until she sat before sitting back down.
Rowan listened as the Kenwards made small talk with each other. They were shortly joined by Mai, who sat a steaming dish in the middle of the table and plopped a basket of warm bread next to it. She took the last seat in the table and starting serving. Rowan waited until everyone else had started eating until dipping in herself, even though it looked so good. She hadn't had a meal like this in ages. It was only a hotpot, a stew of lamb and potatoes with some onion and other seasonings in it, but it was delicious. This was a far sight from the stale loaf-ends and leftovers that Mrs. Carenswood had feed her.
She ate quietly and mannerly, with an ear cocked to the conversation that was going on around her. She heard Jamie talking eagerly about a day seeing a friend and hanging out with "Dad" while he ran some errands for Ravensmere. She gathered that he didn't own Ravensmere, but ran it in a sense, with the title of "estate manager" or maybe it was "land agent". She wasn't really quite sure of what they were talking about. As she ate and listened quietly, she did not notice Mai watching her- watching her tucking into the food like a starved animal, watching her reactions around James and Jamie, watching her impeccable table manners. Watching and wondering, not for the first time, if Rowan could be part of their little family. She wouldn't mind, James seemed to like her, and Jamie was frankly fascinated. It would be good for her and for them.
After the meal, Jamie cleared the table and Mai led Rowan upstairs. She showed her into a room with a single bed, a desk, and a wardrobe. It was sparse in Mai's eyes, but from the shine in Rowan's eyes, it must be like stepping into a castle and having it all to yourself. She left Rowan alone for a moment, and stepped into Jamie's room next door, returning with a pile of clothing in hand.
"Here are some pyjamas for you when you're ready to go to bed. In the meantime, you can join us for some telly, or stay up here and sleep or read or whatever you feel like doing. Just decide, and come down if you choose to or not," Mai said lightly, walking out the door. She paused in the doorway and turned back to Rowan. "Oh and Rowan, just one more thing- I'm glad you're here."
Rowan sat down on the bed, with as much a thump as a body as small as hers could make. A whole room of this size, all to herself! As Mrs. Carenswood's she had slept in the stables, and at the foster home before that, it had been in a room with a bunch of other girls and she didn't even have a corner to call her own. This was… palatial, to say the least, and the Kenwards were kind to her, though for no apparent reason. This thought circled back to Mai's offer- watching the telly. It had been a long time since Rowan had actually watched telly- sometimes she'd catch a glimpse of it through a window, but no more. Going down would also give her a chance to see her kitten. Warring with that was the painful knowledge that this was not her family, no matter how nice they were to her. Like going down to the kitchen, she would be entering another family scene and this one even more intimate. She knew she was nothing but an intruder, and even under their welcoming motions, they knew it too. She longed with her very soul to be part of a family, any family, and it seemed as though someone was taunting her cruelly, to keep her just on the outskirts of one. It was comparable to rubbing salt in an open wound.
Finally, she came to the conclusion that she would just peek down and try to find her kitten. Quietly, so as not to creak the floorboards, she crept back down the stairs and into the kitchen. From the noise coming from the other side of one wall, that must be the family room. She crept slowly, using the shadows to cover her motions, and peeked in. her subterfuge was unnecessary- the Kenwards were concentrating on the telly, facing away from Rowan. Again she was struck was a family scene, and again her heart wretched, knowing that it could never be a part of one. James and Mai were seated on the couch together, his arm resting across her shoulders and her head resting on his shoulders. Jamie was laying out flat on his stomach on the rug, laughing at something the man on the telly said. There was a tabby cat curled up with a gray cat on a chair, and a tiger-stripped cat in the rug by Jamie. Her own kitten was nowhere to be seen, until she heard a soft purr around the vicinity of her feet. Rowan looked down to find a happy black kitten twining its way around her feet. Rowan scooped the tiny kitten, which weighed a little more it seemed, and left the family scene.
Mai didn't miss the purr, or Rowan's soft footsteps on the stairs. She decided not to push herself on the girl, and so had not revealed her knowledge of Rowan's hiding place. Mai did wish however that the girl would become more comfortable around them eventually, and that they could keep her long enough for that "eventually". Later, after she put Jamie to bed, she opened the door just a crack to Rowan's room and peeked in. The girl was sound asleep on her bed, dressed in Jamie's pyjamas. She lay on her side, facing the wall, with her knees partially tucked, and a tiny black kitten curled up next to her. Mai tread softly in and looked down at the sleeping girl. Sound asleep, she looked younger than her thirteen years and her clean face looked perfectly innocent, and perfectly vulnerable. Mai felt a maternal pull towards the girl deep in her heart, and decided that this was where she truly belonged. She would do everything in her grasp to keep Rowan here, and raise her properly, with a family. She reached down and lightly brushed a strand of her off the girl's forehead, before leaving to talk to James about her.