Chapter Seven: Consequences
Lying in the dark, shivers racking her form Tonker remembered…
They had been huddled together against the winter chill; Tilda snuggled in the vee of her legs, leaning back trustingly against her, the rough blanket enveloping them both. Neither girl had even considered suggesting it would be warmer in the attic if they closed the hatch. You couldn't shut out that view. The fields had been so beautiful under the snow, the bare tree branches standing out starkly against the glitter. The cold air had seemed so fresh and clean somehow and Magda had been breathing it in, taking long slow breaths in the hope that the feeling would last, that she could take it with her back to the world below when their short time of escape was over.
"Do you reckon the swallow will come back this year?"
It would have been an odd way to start a conversation, if the air hadn't been filled with all the things they weren't saying with regard to Tilda's imminent departure from the Grey House.
"I was thinking," Tilda had wriggled in her arms, tucking more of the blanket around them. "I'll miss the spring. You'll be watching the snow melt moving up the mountains with the fresh green spreading out in its wake, hearing the first calves coming down to drink, finding the first nests in the eaves. I won't get to see that again."
"You'm probably see more on it." She had refused to withdraw her gaze from the bare hills before them. "They'm sendin' you to a farm any-road, they'll be calves n that and the plantin' come spring."
…They hadn't talked about it, weren't talking about it at all, ever, for the simple reason that Tonker had decided there was nothing to talk about. Girls got to 12 and then got Sent Out. That was the way of it in the Grey House. They'd had near enough four years. It was enough.
It would have to be enough.
She wasn't going to cry over some stupid kid getting to leave when she had to stay, would probably have to stay forever seeing as Magda Halter wasn't fit to be Sent Out, wasn't any use to the world outside the walls. She'd survived here alone before and she'd survive again. Weren't like she wasn't kept busy anyway, there'd be no time to miss anyone.
Not that she'd miss the brat anyway. Tonker didn't miss people. Tonker didn't care about people. Tonker didn't need people.
The kid deserved a chance to get out. She was bright and kind and got on well with 'most everyone. She'd do well wherever she was sent, as soon as folks laid eyes on her they'd be bound to want to keep her. The brat would have a great life, free at last. She would wave the kid off with a clear eye. She might even manage a smile.
She definitely wouldn't cry.
Alone in the dark tears crept from the corners of her eyes as she lay silent, sliding out from under her closed eyelids to run down the sides of her face and collect in her ears. She reached up to brush the moisture away, forgetting in her exhaustion where she was and once again scraping her knuckles on the brick. The tears were forgotten as she caught her breath, desperately trying to hold back the wave of panic. No. Not Now. Put it to one side. Take the terror, the claustrophobia, the pure mind-screaming-white-hot-blade of agony and put it away. She couldn't let them know. No matter how much she wanted to scream that she would do anything, anything! if only they would let her out! she had to swallow it down. The bastards had been trying forever to break her and she would NOT give them the satisfaction of knowing that they'd finally succeeded.
She would not scream. She would not.
Tonker could take anything. She had to remember that. Magda might hate enclosed spaces and fear more than anything the awful confining walls that held her immobile but Tonker had always taken pride in taking the worst the world could throw at her and still finding the strength of hate to spit back into leering faces.
Magda wasn't any use. Magda was weak and cried over the smallest things. Tonker was just going to have to take charge for a while.
She prided herself on the fact that she hadn't made a sound the whole time they'd kept her in there (coughing was a reflex action and consequently didn't count, though it had left her with a bruised and grazed forehead where she'd kept colliding with the bricks). She'd won again, or at least managed to hide the fact of her loss from them. Overall she was still ahead on points. It was a small victory, but deep inside she felt the warm flicker of a tiny vestige of pride and held onto it tightly. It was likely the only warming she could look forward to in her future.
There was no Tilda waiting for her in her usual spot on the stairs and the Grey House looked subtly different. Tonker knew nothing had actually changed, she wasn't that stupid, but still... If she'd been a soft kind of girl, (which she wasn't), she might say that having spent four years looking at these brown walls through Tilda's eyes, it was a shock to see them through her own. Tonker had never had the imagination to see what Tilda saw when she walked these corridors, but the girl's endless chattering had let her piggyback for a while. It was good to see clearly again though. Misty thinking never got anyone anything. Corridors were just corridors, and doors were just doors and Tonker had jobs to do so she went and did them.
Curly, allocated to the stables in her absence, came over to chat but Tonker didn't talk to people, everyone knew that, even if small brown-haired girls might have been allowed to be an exception to that rule. She was easily able to ignore the hovering worried face.
"Er.. Tonker? T?"
Curly couldn't have been addressing Tonker because, as previously stated, Tonker didn't talk to people. She did however have jobs to do and so she continued working.
"T? It's about Tilda."
"Yeah?" Under certain circumstances Tonker saw no reason why people couldn't talk to her.
"She came back." Curly retreated as that look caught her full in the face. Drawing courage the girl continued on regardless. "They sent her back, she's teaching – upstairs."
Tonker had a list of jobs to do. She carried on working. Curly hovered around in case there was anything else but the vicious silence pushed her away and she left Tonker raking fresh straw into the looseboxes. The act of fluffing out fresh straw, filling hay racks and replacing water buckets was soothing. Tonker had always been able to complete her duties. Had always been a hard worker who kept her head down and didn't look for any favours. Just got the job done. It was easier not to think when you had a job to do. Simpler just concentrate on the work, muscles moving stiffly but easing as warmth spread through her extremities. Best not to think on the other things. Those many complicated things that Tonker didn't hold with, wouldn't look at and had safely put to one side and locked away. That way was just stupidity and hurtin'. Thinking was stupid. Thoughts were stupid.
She finished the last of the hayracks and stretched. Looking around and finding the stables empty she conscientiously returned her pitchfork to the rack and set about closing up the stable block, careful to make sure she'd put out every lantern and closed any opened windows. A thorough job, that was the Tonker way. Unbidden, her feet carried her over to the main house and up the side staircase to the second floor. The corridor stretched out empty before her, there was still a good half hour before the bell rang for tea and the kiddlies would be at lessons for at least another 15 minutes of that. Tonker drifted past room after room, heading for the staircase at the far end. Up that flight of stairs was the Senior Washroom where she planned to clean the muck from her hands before dinner.
Something in the second to last classroom caught her attention. Sister Patience was teaching what looked like the parable of the ungrateful son and the big nasty thing with teeth, but that wasn't what had reached out and stopped Tonker in her tracks. At the back of the class, leaning over a small girl who was chewing industrially on her pencil, was an older girl of about 12 or 13. Tonker reached out and found the solid support of the door-frame. It wasn't that she was unsteady on her pins she thought as she slid down the wall to stretch long legs across the corridor. It was just that the wall was comfortable, it had been a long day and she was very tired.
When the class came out, the children walking sedately until out of sight of the Sister and then breaking into a squabbling run, Tonker was way up the end of the corridor, perched hesitantly on the stairs. The girl she'd seen didn't walk out along with the sister and after waiting for the corridor to empty again Tonker walked back down to the classroom. Poking her head around the door she searched the room until her eyes lit on a small disconsolate figure standing in the window, looking down the long curving drive to the gates in the big wall. The girl looked odd and out of place standing there staring out into the darkness. As Tonker watched she put out a hand and ran trembling fingers down the strong mesh that prevented the kids from breaking the expensive glass in the window during any of their silly games. Thin shoulders drooped and a sigh escaped into the quiet of the room. It struck Tonker most strongly that someone needed to keep an eye on this girl. The thought came with an odd sense of déjà vu, as though she'd had this conversation with herself before, but she put the feeling to one side as she began to plan how to keep this kid out of trouble.
"You'm gonna stand there all night or yer gonna want t'eat something?" Tonker put aside the "not talking to people" rule for the moment. She'd stepped into the room, but when the girl didn't respond she was forced to walk over to the window and repeat her question. The girl surprised her then, slipping a hand into hers as they stood side by side, blocking the light from the window and casting a single large shadow on the gravel below.
"Hi." Tilda leant into her tiredly and Magda wrapped a supporting arm around a thin waist, gathering the girl in.
"You were a long time." The words were mumbled into her shoulder and Magda held on as the memory played of the first time, so long ago, that this fragile girl in her arms had said those words.
They'd not wanted this future, those two little girls all those years ago, and neither of them had known then how they'd get from there to here. Eventually she found words, words of apology, words that could express how sorry she was that it hadn't worked out for Til, words of relief at having her friend back at her side.
"Sometimes they like to take a long time."
The dinner bell rang, echoing through the empty rooms.
Magda woke coughing, her third bout that night, and found the bed empty and cold. All the girls doubled up in the winter months, it was the only way to survive some nights, and the other occupants of the dormitory had long stopped commenting that those two kept the tradition year round.
Tilda was gone.
Magda was surprised she'd slept through the movement, it was her custom to wake at the slightest noise out of place. Tilda had definitely been there the other two times she'd woken herself with this dratted coughing. The girl had soothed her, rubbing her back until the paroxysm eased and she could drop back into exhausted slumber. Where was Tilda? Magda's chest hurt, she was shivering already, the floor was likely to be freezing and she wanted nothing more than to lie back down and rest her aching head, but Tilda was out there in the dark somewhere. Alone and unprotected.
Wrapping the blanket around her shoulders Magda shuffled off into the gloom.
She found her at last in the tiny book-room off the back corridor. A small huddled lump of misery sat before the glowing embers in the grate, doing something unseen. Magda slipped through the door, closing it safely behind her. Crossing the room she sat herself quietly on the bare floorboards a safe distance from the girl but Tilda completely ignored her, totally absorbed in what she was doing. Shifting to see better Magda frowned in confusion as the hidden activity came into view. Tilda was carefully selecting the longest spills from the collection laid out on the hearth before her, placing the tip into the heart of the embers until a flame grew visible along the thin wood. Once the flame was strong enough the girl pulled it from the fire watching with intense focus as the flickering hunger ate up the spill until the heat threatened her fingers whereupon she dropped it into the grate and began the whole procedure again.
It was at the same time the saddest and the most frightening thing Magda had ever seen.
Unsure what to do she crept closer, settling herself beside the busy figure, her hands clasped around her knees. As the Tilda dropped the latest burnt remainder into the grate she turned her head for a moment, acknowledging Magda's presence with a nod before returning to her task. Her existence accepted, Magda redistributed the blanket fairly over both their shoulders and settled in to wait for inspiration.
Before she could come up with anything however, Tilda began to speak. Beginning with the first trembling steps out beyond the gate she worked her way through the tale with plodding unemotional description, the bald facts dropping one by one into the pool of silence that surrounded them. Listening as quiet words painted their picture of achingly familiar truth across the bland walls, Magda noticed something odd. Tilda only spoke when there was flame was creeping along the thin wood, her low voice fading away as the charcoal was dropped into the grate and not rising again until the new flame grew unsteadily from the still glowing embers.
In all her years in The Grey House Magda had never regretted her lack of words until now. She knew that should their positions be reversed, Tilda would be able to find expression for this terrible tearing understanding of the story Magda had been handed, wrapped in shiny paper as though a gift. The girl she remembered, who could read and write and knew about the way things should be would be able to deal with this lump of sick disappointment that sat heavy and cold in the centre of Magda's chest pressing heavy on her stomach and making it difficult to draw a full breath. That girl would know how to put the pieces back together after the world had shown once again that it didn't care about fairness in its treatment of the undeserving. All Magda could do was lean a head onto that stiff shoulder beside her in silent support. It wasn't enough, but it was all she had.
They sat amongst the remains of the tale as the clock in the hall faintly chimed the quarter hours. Eventually Tilda softly blew out the last spill before it reached halfway toward her hand and said "I would like to go to bed now."
They retraced their footsteps through the silent dark corridors, Magda keeping a guiding arm linked into the kid's as she was prone to stumbling and drifting off course as though sleepwalking. When they reached the relative safety of the dorm Magda held up the blankets for Tilda to crawl under and then after she'd climbed in, slipped in behind her and gathered her into protective arms. They lay quiet amongst the snores and snuffles of their neighbours waiting for the warmth to build under their thin covers. Then Tilda started to cry softly, turning over and attempting to climb into Magda, wrapping the taller girl in a flurry of clinging arms and legs as the choking sobs tore their way out from deep inside her. Not knowing what else to do Magda held on, rubbing soft circles on her back as Tilda brokenly cried herself to sleep.
The next day they went about their jobs as usual, neither commenting on what had passed in the night. But that night once again Magda was woken to find the empty beside her. This time however, she was able to catch Tilda by the arm as she left and the girl even allowed Magda to wrap her gently in a shawl before they crept off into the dark warren of the mill. Following Tilda's confident movements through the unlit corridors Magda was forced to wonder whether Tilda had spent any nights in her bed since her return to The Grey House. Had she been wandering these dark staircases the whole time Magda had been fighting claustrophobia? For all she didn't know exactly how long they'd kept her down there this time, it had felt like weeks. How long had Tilda sat alone with only the flickering flames for company? They arrived at the little book-room before she could fully process that thought. This time Tilda pulled Magda down to sit behind her and allowed her to wrap them both in the shawl. She leant back into Magda's embrace from time to time, both of them watching her careful nursing of the vulnerable flame.
The silence sucked at them both, but Tilda seemed perfectly satisfied with her little splints so it was Magda that spoke first.
"I'm sorry I was so long." She tightened her hold on the fragile preciousness in her arms. "They had a new toy they wanted to test. I'm not so good with it so they didn't get bored as quick as usual." The trembling that struck her whenever she thought about the bricks swept over her again but she forced it down. "I tried."
"I didn't like it." Tilda hadn't said anything the night before about how she felt about what had been done to her, merely covering the bare bones of the facts as they were. Her statement fell into the quiet that wrapped them like a blanket and Magda accepted it as the trusting gift it was. "I didn't want him to." She cried softly, tears dribbling silently down pale cheeks as the flickering flames crept along the spindly wood.
"It's okay." Magda used the fringe of the shawl to wipe away the traces of tears, rocking the girl gently in her arms. "I won't let them take you again."
"I didn't want it." She was crying more heavily now. "It hurt and I wanted him to stop and he wouldn't. I was... I was screaming but he wouldn't listen."
"I tried to fight him, but they're too strong. They're always too strong." She hiccuped on the last of her tears and huddled close breathing heavily.
"I know." Magda didn't have words for where that hurt.
The girl said no more after that, merely sat silent in her embrace as she lit one spill after another, dropping the ash onto the empty hearth. When the last spill went out and they were left watching the embers glowing and fading in the grate Tilda sighed, shivered and followed willingly when the older girl stood and held out a hand to guide her back upstairs. Magda put her to bed and slipped in beside her, pulling the blankets over them both. After a moment's quiet Tilda turned, wrapping her in the frantic grip of arms and legs as tremors ran up and down her thin frame. Once again Magda rubbed comforting circles over her back until she heard the girl's breathing lengthen and deepen into sleep.
It took a week of rising with Tilda in the night and sitting with her as she tended her uncertain flame before the girl managed to sleep through. There were nightmares now and then, but amongst the inmates of the Grey House nightmares were considered normal fare. As Tilda came back to herself and began to take notice of the things around her she began to pay slightly more attention to Magda's cough. Careful questioning and even more careful patient listening eventually drew out the details about the new cold water treatment and the long nights spent shivering on cold stone in saturated thin clothes. Magda didn't tell her about the box.
The nights were difficult, Magda's temperature creeping up despite the medicine Tilda had managed to steal. She was thrust into deep nightmares where she was back in the box, screaming silently over and over until Tilda shook her awake, struggling to full consciousness in a frantic battle against confining blankets. Those nights, surrounded by safe darkness she felt her way towards admitting that she couldn't bear this one, how the walls were holding her in. Held in Tilda's gentle embrace she could whisper of the paralysing fear with it's acrid stripe of claustrophobia and dare to voice the awful terrifying knowledge that they had beaten her and soon they would know.
It couldn't last forever though and with the help of the medicine and Tilda's care she soon picked up, the raw pain that had followed every breath fading until it was nothing more than a memory. The nightmares, though they did ease, lasted a good while longer. Tilda said one day that they took it in turns, swapping the right to demand comfort as first one and then the other woke on a swallowed scream. Eventually both sets of nightmares faded as well, minds recovering whilst bodies prepared for the next challenge.
Unfortunately Magda couldn't keep her promise that she wouldn't let them take Tilda again. She tried, keeping the girl out of sight as much as she could, but it was never really an option. She did manage to teach the girl some things though, in the few months of peace they did have. The next time she was Sent Out Tilda broke the man's nose and used her knowledge of metallurgy to blow a hole in the side of the boiler in the cellar as she left. It was only due to the insomnia of one of the kitchen maids that the whole place didn't burn to the ground. She got a week in the hole for her troublemaking but the season had turned to a balmy spring so it wasn't so bad. When she got out Magda carved a small explosion in the beam alongside the date and a representation of himself and they sat dangling their legs out of the attic hatch and cursed his family until the 16th generation. They used a curse that Tilda had found in the bastard's library, so it wasn't a completely wasted stay.
Over time Magda got better at carving explosions, flames and in one case a fortuitous collision of snow and red-hot fuel that seared all the paint off a very old decorated ceiling. They got more inventive with the cursing as well.
Tilda never gave voice to the dark things except when the flame was licking along slender spills and Tonker was still needed from time to time when they decided that Magda was getting too uppity. But there were occasional moments here and there when such things could almost be forgotten and they could be children again, the children who'd played in the dust of their dreams and found such restricted joy acceptable.
They were in a holding pattern and they knew it. But why look to a painful future before you need to when that future is barrelling it's way towards you at full pelt and there's nothing you can do to change it no matter how ingenious or strong you are? Take the blessing of today. Live it to its fullness. Eat, drink and if you can, be merry. For tomorrow? Tomorrow we die.