As I slowly pack my small, battered suitcase for the long journey, my older sister dusts, hoping to make our cottage look presentable for the next residents. I’m making this last as long as possible, picking up each item and pondering it carefully before deciding whether to keep it.
“Hurry up,” Agnes says, an edge of impatience to her voice.
I ignore her and make a great show of weighing a stone coaster in my hand.
“Rose, you know that we can’t take much with us,” she continues. “ I had to sell my best dress. You can’t expect to hold onto everything.”
Determined to tune her out, I start singing. “O, the snow it melts the soonest when the winds begin to sing;
And the corn it ripens fastest when the frosts are setting in…”
Agnes storms away, into the kitchen. I fall silent, knowing that she has a point. Then, I lay the coaster on a table. Let someone else have it.
The suitcase is full of beige dresses and hats, exactly like the outfit I’m wearing now. The material is plain and unattractive, but it will last until winter, at least.
When I finish my task, Agnes enters the room. Her face is still tight and red, but she makes an effort to be civil.
“Are you quite ready?”
“Good, then we should go. The director of the orphanage will be expecting us soon.”
We gather up our meager belongings and leave our home for the last time. My black shoes click on the stone path.
On impulse, I stop and turn around. The cottage is small, but well-kept. Three windows provide a glimpse of the interior. Although it’s devoid of furniture, thanks to the debtors, a dusty end table and a navy-blue woven rug are still there. The fireplace is unlit, but I can imagine some other family gathered around its warmth in the same way we were, just six months ago.
Agnes sighs, impatient; I tear myself away from the sight of the house and follow her reluctantly.
We travel in silence for a while. The trees above us sway in a light breeze, and a butterfly the color of a robin’s egg flutters across the well-worn path. And yet, I’m not at peace. Eventually, I speak. “This bothers me, Agnes.”
Without turning around, she asks, “What is it?”
I hesitate. “Well…I don’t think Mother would have wanted us to sell the house.”
Her shoulders stiffen, but when she replies, her voice is carefully controlled. “Mother is dead.”
“You don’t know that,” I say. “She could be in the city. She could be waiting for us. She—”
Agnes cuts me off with an angry gesture. “Even if that might be true, she is dead to me. No respectable person would abandon two young girls. I’m only sixteen, and you are but twelve. We shouldn’t have to survive on our own.”
“She had no choice!” I protest. The forest has gone dark, the sky is grey where it shows through the trees, and a few drops of rain land on my hat. “Besides, she said she would come back and make everything right.”
“That was six months ago,” Agnes mutters.
“She promised…” I say.
My sister whirls around, her eyes ablaze with sudden fury. “Mother also ‘promised’ never to beat me again, but she gave me bruises up until the day she left!”
I stare at her. “It was an accident.”
“An accident that kept happening, over and over and…?” The storm begins in earnest, and I can’t tell if it’s rainwater or tears on Agnes’s face. Suddenly, she slumps, abandoning her always-perfect posture. “You wouldn’t understand. You were her angel. She never blamed you for our poverty.”
And without a word, she continues on, head bowed against the weather and the past.
“Wait!” I yell, running to catch up with her. She glances at me sideways, but doesn’t speak.
We keep walking. The downpour softens, but never completely stops. Thunder rolls in the distance, and it’s hard to see the ground through the looming darkness.
Just as my legs begin to ache, the treeline ends abruptly, revealing a well-worn, paved path. And just beyond that?
The city rises up to greet us, tall buildings stretching above our heads, automobiles and carriages managing to coexist on the streets.
We’ve made it.
Before I can take in many of the sights, Agnes grabs my arm and pulls me along towards the orphanage.
The large building is made of stone, which has been painted white in a halfhearted effort to make it look cheerful. There are a few children in the unkempt yard, but they seem to look right through us.
Agnes rings the doorbell and speaks to me for the first time since our argument in the forest. “Unless they ask you a question directly, let me do the talking.”
The door opens after a few seconds, revealing a middle-aged woman in a dark wool dress. Her face is lined, and her eyes are shadowed, but there is kindness in the way she looks at us.
“You must be the Mallory sisters. Please, do come in.”
We follow her through the empty lobby and down a dim hallway. She talks the whole time.
“You can call me the Matron. I gave up my real name when my husband passed away. That’s why I’m wearing black, see.”
We nod and make vague sympathetic noises, both of us wondering if the Matron has any inhibitions whatsoever.
“He made the place what it once was,” she continues. “I try to keep it up—for the children—but I was never very good at housekeeping, you know.”
“We could help,” Agnes says. “We ran our household for six months after our mother’s death.”
“She’s not dead!” I protest, forgetting my instructions.
“Yes, she is,” Agnes tells me. To the Matron, she says, “Rose is a bit addled from grief right now.”
I reach over and pinch her in the side; I know I’m too old for such childish behavior, but I don’t care. She winces, glares at me for a moment, and keeps walking. I can hear her repeat the phrase: “Yes, definitely addled from grief.”
I’m told to sit outside while Agnes talks with the Matron. The door to the office has scarcely shut when a small girl, no more than eight years old, sits in the chair next to me. Thick glasses are perched on her nose, her curly white-blonde hair is unkempt, and the dress she wears is an ugly, lurid shade of pink. Without introducing herself, she tells me, “My parents are coming back for me any day now. They left me here because I am precocious, pedantic, and inquisitive, but they should reconsider soon. The human mind is fickle at best. Oh! I almost forgot. My name is Claudia Nettie Farrow. And you are…?”
I smile in spite of myself. “Rose.”
She pushes her glasses up. “No middle name? Or surname?”
“Most children don’t ask that kind of question right away,” I say drily. “But if you really want to know, my full name is Rose Edna Mallory.”
“Mallory,” she says. “Are you of Anglo-Saxon descent?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“I rather enjoy the study of genealogy.” She doesn’t look at me, but I can tell that she’s happy to talk about this.
Agnes walks into the room, looking happier than she’s been in a long time. “We’re accepted, as long as we help take care of the children,” she says.
“My parents still want me,” Claudia blurts out. “Or at least, they will soon. They have to!”
Agnes looks on quizzically as I pat the younger girl’s hand, trying to reassure her. “I know,” I say. “They’ll see your value one day, and it will be soon.”
It’s an awful feeling, to lie.
Our room has faded lavender wallpaper, a cream-colored carpet, two well-made beds, and a desk with a lamp; although it’s old-fashioned and spare, it’s not as run-down as the rest of the orphanage. The night passes quickly, and the next morning, we report to the Matron’s office.
“It’s your first day in a new city,” she says as soon as we enter. “I can handle a dozen children for one more day! Go out and explore.”
We do as she says.
The city is huge and bustling. “Vegetables! Get ‘em while they’re fresh,” a man behind a wooden cart yells to everyone he sees. We have to stop for a moment when a scrawny brown dog chases a large white cat directly into our path. An extended family of gentry passes by; all of them, from the grandparents down to the infant in his carriage, wear dark velvet and bright lace. We don’t buy anything, since we haven’t earned our wages yet, but we spend the day looking around in awe.
It’s been a month. We’re beginning to settle into our new life, taking care of the children and helping the Matron with various household tasks. We’ve even gone to church most Sundays. I accept Christ and begin to read my Bible.
I don’t want to lose this peace.
But a plan is taking hold in my mind—a plan involving our mother. I can’t tell Agnes, who still says that Mother is dead. Nor can I tell the Matron; she would think I was insane. And, although I’m becoming like a sister to Claudia, she wouldn’t understand, either.
The only way to do this is to keep it a secret,
One day, when everyone is distracted by the traveling library that comes to town every so often, I slip away. If this were for any other purpose, I’d regret my decision—I love reading.
But even books fall by the wayside in this case.
Once I’m on the street, I pick a trustworthy-looking person and walk up to her.
“Do you know a woman named Belle Mallory?” I ask. The woman gives me a strange look. “No, sorry.”
I try a man next time. “Have you heard the name Belle Mallory recently?”
“No, can’t say I have. Good luck finding her, though.”
Not everyone is so polite about it. “Go away,” an older woman sneers. “I don’t know you. You’re probably trying to pick my pocket when I’m not paying attention.”
I’m about to give up, but I force myself to trudge up to the next person. “Do you know Belle Mallory?” I ask quickly, expecting this woman to say no. But she doesn’t. She says something even worse.
“I saw that name in the obituaries a few months ago.” Seeing my distraught face, she asks, “Did you know her somehow? She didn’t amount to much. Just a woman of the streets.”
The world seems to tilt around me. I turn and run, not even sure where I’m going. My mind is frozen with horror.
She would never sink that low. Would she?
She was unsaved. And she’s dead. I don’t want to believe it…
The graveyard gate is already open, so I slip inside and begin to look frantically at the names on the tombstones. There’s a moment of panic when one reads “Belle”, but the last name is “Johnson”. This Belle wasn’t my mother. I thank God for that, then continue on.
My heart lightens; none of the dead so far have been Belle Mallory.
Then I stop short. In the corner by the fence is a small stone, already weathered.
Belle Mallory, 1891-1923.
It doesn’t say anything else, but I know it’s her.
Please, God, not this, anything but this…
The world spins as I crouch next to the stone. I’m crying openly, and I don’t care who sees me. “Mother,” I whisper.
Agnes speaks from behind me. “I can’t say I’m as upset as you are.”
I jump up and whirl around to face her, surprised. “How can you be so heartless? And why did you follow me in the first place?”
She doesn’t look away, though I expect her to. Instead, she locks eyes with me. Her expression is full of sadness. A few bruises and cuts that I never noticed before still mar her face. “She was the heartless one,” Agnes says quietly. “I know you wanted a happy ending, and I knew you might not get it. Even if she was alive, do you think she would have welcomed you with open arms? She made a choice to leave, Rose. I was just trying to protect you from that choice.”
Can I really give up this easily?
“I heard the Matron talking to the authorities,” she adds. “She wants to adopt us, and probably Claudia, to raise as her own children.” Extending a hand, she smiles faintly. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
I don’t hesitate this time. God wants me to do this; I can feel His guidance, pushing me into a new life.
I take my sister’s hand, and together we walk out of the graveyard, into the sunlight.
Author’s note: This was based on a picture called “The Woods”.
Two sisters must learn to get along with each other after their mother disappears. Rose, the younger sister, wants to stay in their family's cottage and hope for the best, while Agnes believes that it would be best to move on. During their stay at a run-down orphanage, they realize that there is more to the world, their mother, and themselves than they could ever have imagined.