Part I: Her
Life was slow. And it felt like felt, paper flowers, soft feathers, and netting.
Sophie grew up quiet but willful. She liked to keep herself busy and be productive. Her hands were always occupied, and her favorite tasks were braiding her younger sister's golden hair and sewing little dresses for her dolls out of the leftover scraps of material from the hat shop.
She didn't really know what comfort was. Her mother's hugs were few and bony, her manner not quite motherly, and she didn't know that she was supposed to seek out her mother's attention when she had her feelings hurt or scraped a knee. She always was surrounded by soft, lace-trimmed fabrics and the same heavy, garden-scented perfume.
Sophie wasn't an unhappy child. She had her sister.
The taunts began when she was seven. While the boys would tug Lettie's braids and chase after her, they laughed at Sophie and stuck their tongue out at her. And the taunts that first reached only her ears, eventually reverberated into her heart.
Ugly. Plain. Boring! Stupid. Ugly Sophie!
Lettie tried to make them stop and for a long time would cry at their taunts towards her sister, while Sophie only frowned and looked down. But eventually Lettie forgot that there was ever a time where Sophie wasn't taunted, and stopped feeling upset.
Sophie loved her sister more than anyone else. Lettie was much like their mother. Pretty, cheerful, and with more materialistic tendencies than Sophie would ever be capable of. But she had a kinder heart then their mother, who was distant to both of them but even more so to the daughter that looked nothing like her.
Sophie, my darling, why don't you wear the pink dress? You look so plain in yellow!
Lettie, of course, received more attention and affection then her older sister. Sophie never really resented it, because she understood. Her sister was the child everyone loved. Who couldn't love her? Indeed, she understood fully why Lettie was the favorite. Her mother's preference was only natural. And, after all, Sophie liked Lettie more than she liked herself anyway.
Her friends were a redheaded boy with big teeth and his mousy haired, quiet sister. Her name was Martha and she mostly hummed the same lullaby, over and over, to herself. His name was Jon and he dragged her on half-adventures and fueled her temper with his big mouth because, though he was kind to her, he didn't know how to be respectful or filter his words. This frustrated Sophie endlessly. She always knew when to be polite, she always would be respectful of her elders, and she never spoke words that she felt may injure others. She knew, of course, the effect words had on the heart.
Her two friends moved away when she was eleven.
Her tongue loosened when she started working in the shop. Her mother needed a new shopkeeper when the old one, a pretty girl with a dull mind that felt everything tenfold, showed up in frantic tears and claimed she couldn't work in this town anymore because of him. And so thirteen year old Sophie filled in, meekly hiding behind the counter and fiddling with the adornments on the hats on display.
But it didn't take long for her to find her place. The hat shop became a retreat from the company of other children, who she never felt comfortable around. And the customers never called her plain. They were too absorbed in the hats, and no one ever really notices the shopkeeper – especially when she was a plain girl with not much to say. But she learned to find her tongue. She had to, sometimes, when a customer decided they wanted to bargain rather than buy. She learned to be steadfast, and her underlying stubborn nature was revealed.
Her mother was pleased with how well she came to run the hat shop, and eventually turned more and more of the authority over to her.
On the off days, when ladies didn't come in for summer hats or festive bonnets, she began creating her own hats. She liked it. Just as she had liked stitching clothes for her dolls, she liked stitching designs and putting together arrangements on ribbon covered hats. She liked creating something beautiful, something that wasn't plain at all, something she could be proud of.
No one could call her hats plain.
That was something she could control.
Her talent for hat making was immediately apparent. Her hats were the first to sell, the ones that were most admired through the store window, and sales picked up considerably. She didn't make as many hats as were demanded, much to customer's disappointment.
Her mother was pleased with the boost in sales and her daughter's only profitable talent, and suggested gleefully that Sophie dear might dedicate more of her time to hat making than hat selling.
You're better with hats than people anyway, Sophie dear. Look at this one! It's absolutely delightful. Don't you think it would look so lovely with Lettie's lilac gown?
Passing her days in the hat shop, she didn't spend much time with people her own age. The interactions she did have usually consisted of awkward silences, snickers, and eventually them ignoring her presence completely. She didn't have anything interesting to say to them, and they had nothing they wanted to discuss with a girl who liked making fashionable things rather than wearing them.
And so at sixteen she resigned herself to her life at her hat shop, smiling politely at the ladies she worked with and mostly keeping to herself in the back room designing hats.
While she passed her teenage years as a hatter, Lettie giggled and flirted and laughed with friends. At night she would relate the tales from her day to her sister.
You need to have fun sometimes, Sophie! You're wasting your youth, you know. Come with me to a dance sometime, please? We'll buy you a new dress and you can have fun for once!
Her sister had the best intentions. Lettie truly wanted to help her sister. Make her more social, more alive; less morose, less quiet. And in her mind, she saw Sophie dancing and laughing and making friends.
That wasn't what happened, when she finally persuaded her.
Sophie wore a dress the color of a melting sunset, that wasn't new as much as it was hardly worn. It had been her mother's, but it was too big for her now. Sophie liked the way it hung heavily over her – it felt like armor. She wore a hat of her own design, with a simple ribbon and even a fake iris cluster attached to the pale silk of the ribbon.
Lettie introduced her to her friends. They smiled politely but did not attempt to talk to her. Boys came up, some chivalrous and some playful, and asked them to dance. Lettie tried to be at her side as often as possible, but she was not really one to turn down a dance.
Sophie stood at the side of the room, feeling painfully alone in a crowd of people. She had never felt more unattractive, more useless, or more boring in her entire life. No one asked her to dance, and no one talked to her but a plump woman who recognized her hat from the shop rather than her as the hatter. The short conversation exchanged between them made Sophie feel like her chest was tight.
Lettie pulled a boy over who wore a crinkled shirt, a besotted expression, and a pair of dirty boots. But he was handsome. Tall, agile, with sharp features and curling brown hair. Sophie blushed as he approached. But he had eyes only for Lettie as he mindlessly agreed to Lettie's suggestion that he dance with her sister. He didn't so much ask Sophie to dance as much as Lettie put Sophie's hand in his and pushed them towards the dance floor of the ballroom.
He asked her three questions about Lettie and then remained silent, more interested in the music and the marble tiles of the ballroom floor than his dance partner. Sophie tripped over her feet, unaccustomed to dancing, and he only winced. She felt incredibly ugly next to him, even if he did have a frowsy appearance. It made her realize just how little she was noticed, how invisible she was, and she didn't really like that. Not at all.
That night she cried into her pillow and wished desperately that she was different. More like Lettie, less like Sophie. She was going to end up alone, an old hatter, and would see everyone else's happiness while being helpless to find her own.
She clutched her sunset dress and forced herself to look in the mirror, choking back tears. She wanted boys to notice her. To be pretty. To be like the other teenage girls. To be interesting, and happy, and less plain.
She returned to her shop, more dejected than ever, with a slightly heavier heart.
And her life was filled with the sounds and vibrations from the daily train, the laughter of the women in the shop, and the occasional, accidental bite of a pinprick on her thumb.
It was peaceful, if nothing else. And she was good at it. It suited her, when nothing else did.
Stitch and sew wide ribbons onto straw hats, smile at Lettie, the mindless action of braiding her straight brown hair each morning. Counting the money. The walk to the market on Tuesdays. The smell of the silk flowers when they got a new box of materials. The mothballs they placed in the hatboxes with unfashionable hats, which they stored away in hopes of them returning to favor. Listening to Mrs. Peters read aloud the daily paper. Fresh flowers on the table in her mother's foyer. Lettie's laughter as she twirled around in a new dress.
The customers that remembered her name.
The old man at Lettie's favorite shop who called her "pretty thing" every once in awhile. Sweeping at sunrise, or sunset. Closing the shop on warm summer nights. The days where they could almost see the shape of the moving castle past the outskirts of their town. Tying new ribbons into bows at each end of her braid.
There were moments when her uninteresting life had glimmers of almost-happiness.
She refused to admit, most of the time, that she was terribly lonely. And that she always had been. She would grow old like this, this she was sure of. She didn't have much hope for change and her sense told her it was unlikely to occur.
Leave him alone this instant, young man!
Lettie was surprised when Sophie's brows drew together and her hands went to her hips, crossing the road towards a confrontation on the other side of the street. She approached a boy in a red cap, who had a smaller boy in headlock as he roughly rumbled up his hair. Sophie descended, index finger wagging and scolding the child until he ran off, then giving the sniffling, unkempt child her handkerchief and a friendly smile. When his tears stopped, he smiled gratefully at the woman kneeling in front of him, his defender, and tossed his arms around her in a fleeting hug before running off in the opposite direction of the other boy.
It was the most passionate Lettie had ever seen Sophie and the expression she wore on her face when comforting the boy made her desperately sad. She privately thought to herself, with sympathy, how much of a pity it was that Sophie would never get the opportunity to have children of her own.
She was so good at dealing with them. And she would make a wonderful, loving wife. But Lettie knew Sophie was not destined for such things, just as Sophie did. It was unspoken and obvious, there was no reason to bring up such a thing and hurt her sister's feelings.
Her passion could be visibly seen in other outlets. The way she attacked the cleaning in the mornings, rapidly sweeping back and forth with a determined look on her face. The satisfaction that a clean house and shop brought her was surpassed only by the pleasure she felt the few times when her mother absolutely raved about a hat she had spent an excessive amount of time on.
War came, and Sophie didn't like it. She didn't really know anyone personally involved, but the things she read in the paper were enough to make her flushed and angry and so very, very disappointed. And it was all over something silly, something trivial, and yet so many lives were being lost.
She sold more black hats, with beaded black veils, to weeping mothers, wives, and daughters.
But Lettie got a new job, and that was good. A good job, a bakery job, and it suited her perfectly. Whenever Sophie was swallowed by her hugs, she smelt of sugar and toffee. The sweetness suited her sister, and she could just imagine how well the bakery must be doing with her pretty sister tending to customers.
Sophie was right. Lettie would come to Sophie exhausted, huffing about the exuberant customers as she kicked off heels. The bakery was doing well. So well, in fact, that Lettie had little time for dances or tea with her sister. It was too crowded to leave, there were never any off hours like there were at Sophie's hat shop, and when she was done working she was simply too tired to do anything else.
So Sophie didn't visit at first. She didn't want to get in the way, didn't want to cause a problem, and she wasn't terribly fond of crowds. She made up her mind to visit sometime when she thought it would be the least crowded.
With everyone out in the square for the parade, surely there would be less in the bakery?
She took the trolley, then to the alleys. It was easier to find the bakery on the main roads, but it was too crowded to navigate the streets efficiently. She thought though, maybe, that she was perhaps slightly lost, and constantly turned her head back down to inspect the little sheet of paper she had written down the directions she had gotten from Lettie on. She couldn't follow them exactly, not with the crowds on the streets, and it was harder to figure out which way was the right way when she was taking a slightly-altered back route.
The alleys were quiet and she could hear the birds chirp, the roar of the crowds dying back and dimming. She looked around, contemplating her directions.
And almost ran into a soldier.
She sucked in air, not expecting it. Her mind went blank – she wasn't used to dealing with men. And were the complimenting her? What were they doing?
She just wanted to get away. She was uncomfortable in their presence, with their closeness, and their forceful, coaxing tones. She felt the urge to run, but she was too timid; a mouse indeed. Perhaps she should stay. They were probably just being helpful. She didn't really know how men behaved, after all, let alone soldiers.
But their possible kindness still made her nervous. She rejected their offers, stepped back, frowned solidly. These soldiers could not be kind, were just messing with her, and she didn't like it.
The smell of hyacinths flooded her senses and a hand landed solidly on her shoulder.