Source: Pixabay

Four pieces of glass

“Eleven-year-old Andie Clean stared out the window, admiring the Clean family graveyard…”

Eleven-year-old Andie Clean stared out the window, admiring the Clean family graveyard. The headstones gleamed from loving, daily attention. The graves themselves — or, to be more precise, their occupants — nourished a riot of flowering plants. Empty plots lay waiting for Andie’s grandmother, mother, father, and sister. And, of course, for Andie herself.

“Andie! Get away from the window!”

Andie sighed and turned away. She knew she was supposed to help Mam and Gamma polish the formal dining room floor, but she really didn’t want to. It was sunny outside, and she hoped to spend the day playing with Buttercup Seventy-Five, the Winton family’s orange tabby.

Andie faced her mother. “Mam, I don’t want to clean. I want to see Daddy!”

Before Andie could take another breath, Mam cuffed her across the face with a broad, callused palm. Andie tottered for a moment, and then steadied her feet. She quickly tallied the damage. Her cheek stung, and the left side of her nose was tender. Otherwise, she felt fine.

She decided to press her luck.

“Where’s Maggie? Why doesn’t she have to clean today?”

Andie stepped back as Mam’s pupils leaked into inky pools of rage. Mam wound up her arm and prepared to strike. Andie mashed her eyelids together and braced herself. Her nose had been broken a couple of times before, but it didn’t matter. Maggie was the pretty one.

When the expected blow didn’t come, Andie opened her eyes. Gamma’s birdlike hand was clinging to Mam’s thick forearm.

“Don’t, Bridget. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know.

Mam’s whole body seemed to deflate, and her arm fell limply to her side. “Get to work,” she growled.

Andie knew better than to do anything but take a chamois and a bottle of polish from the cleaning caddy, and focus her attention on the scuffed marble floor.

Andie was almost done polishing her corner of the room when Gamma knelt down next to her. Gamma’s face was seamed with loveliness and pain. Arthritis had turned her once small, neat hands into gnarled, avian claws.

“You shouldn’t test your mother so,” she said. Her voice was dry and whispery, like rustling leaves.

“I know,” replied Andie glumly, rubbing her chamois into the floor.

“She misses your father.” Gamma paused for a moment. “And your sister.”

“Can you tell me where Maggie is?”

Gamma clucked and shook her head. A wisp of silver hair fell into her eyes. “Little one, worry about yourself, not your sister. You need to cultivate a better attitude. The Cleans have served the Wintons for generations.”

Andie nodded. Gamma stroked her hair. “I know you miss them, too, little one. We all do.”

Andie stood against the wall, holding a platter of apple butterflies, pear swans, and strawberry hearts. One of the Cook girls — Trellie — occupied Maggie’s usual place. She bore a tray of vegetable dips and canapés. Like all the Cooks, she was blonde, freckled, and soft like freshly baked bread. Andie thought of Maggie’s wild, crackling eyes. She would have kept her distracted with sly smirks and whispered asides.

Across the room, the Winton sisters lounged on chaises, biting off wings and chewing up hearts. They all appeared to be around twenty-five years old, and they shared the same long, fragile physique. Emily Winton, the eldest, had alabaster skin that suggested a life spent indoors. Her movements were so languid she seemed to exist in her own dense gravitational field.

“Did you hear about the Meriwethers?” she drawled. “The daughter is pregnant, and she won’t say who the father is.”

“Oh, that’s old news, you sleepy slut,” replied Lavinia, the youngest. “You would have heard Mummy wittering on about it if you’d bothered to come down for breakfast. Apparently, they suspect one of the servants.”

Lavinia’s eyes skittered around the room and came to rest on Andie and Trellie. “God, they’re creepy. Always staring, like some kind of hungry rat.”

Andie bristled at the insult, even as she arranged her features into a politely neutral mask. It was one of the first things every servant girl learned: how to make the nothing face.

“Not rat,” said middle sister Mariah through thin, pursed lips. “Rabbit. They breed like bunnies and don’t survive long enough to learn anything.”

“Then why do we bother? Why keep them at all? Why? Why? Why?” Lavinia vibrated with nervous energy.

Mariah snorted. “We have eighty-six rooms and ten bathrooms. Someone has to clean them. And do you really want to do your own laundry? Wash the dishes? Polish the silverware? Reach your soft, delicate hand into the unmentionable?”

“Of course not, Mariah dear,” said Emily coolly. “It’s just so nerve-wracking when their jumpy little eyes track our every movement. It’s like they’re judging us.”

“Exactly,” agreed Lavinia. “They watch everything we do, from eating and drinking to peeing. It’s unnatural. And don’t get me started on how destructive they are. I hate having their dirty little paws all over our precious things. So much of what we have is ancient and irreplaceable.”

Andie gulped silently. Just last week, she broke a wineglass, one of a set of thirteen. It slipped from her fingers, and gravity pulled it to the floor. Maggie laughed and said not to worry, that twelve was a luckier number. She carefully gathered the four broken pieces, wrapped them in a square of cheesecloth, and tucked the bundle into her apron.

“You over there,” called Lavinia, glaring at Andie. “Bring me the fruit tray.”

Andie dawdled through the courtyard. It was full of loud flowers that attracted equally gaudy butterflies. She and Maggie used to stop there on their way to and from the supply room, ferrying woolly mop heads and ammoniac cleaning solutions.

Maggie, who had just turned seventeen, loved to pick flowers and use them as props. Sometimes she’d tuck one behind her ear and pretend to be a guest at one of the Wintons’ grand balls. Other times, she’d imitate Emily swaying on the verge of narcoleptic collapse, or Lavinia’s spastic attempts to dance. By the time Maggie was finished, Andie would be convulsed with laughter.

As far as Andie was concerned, Maggie’s only flaw was her tedious interest in Todd Winton the Fourth, Master Todd’s eldest son. He had a pretty face, a perpetual sneer, and a fondness for rigidly enforcing house rules. Everyone called him Quad. Maggie was constantly tinkering with an elaborate, multi-staged plan to win his regard that involved a stolen dress, a mask, and a rooster. Andie was a little hazy on the details, because they tended to put her to sleep.

Andie was about to pick a tiger lily when she heard the heavy, careless footsteps of men. She ducked under a staircase and watched as Quad and his pear-shaped brother, the one everyone called Biggles, tromped in. Instead of passing through as Andie had hoped, they settled on a pink marble bench and lit Banner Golds, parchment cigarettes dipped in gold leaf.

Quad sat ramrod straight and blew smoke with the vigor of a young dragon. Biggles slumped forward and exhaled floaty wisps.

“Do we really have time for this?” asked Biggles, waving his cigarette.

“They’re not going to start without me,” said Quad.

“I suppose not.”

They smoked in silence. Biggles shook his foot and rubbed at his shirt collar. “You don’t have to go through with it, you know. Maggie Clean is harmless,” he said.

Andie’s heart fluttered in her chest like a dying bird.

“It’s a matter of principle,” said Quad stoutly. “She broke the rules, and she must be punished. Simple as that.”

“You mean she’ll be punished if she’s found guilty.”

“There is no if. She’s guilty. She confessed.” He smirked and then added, “To me.”

Quad and Biggles tossed their butts onto the ground and crushed them under the soles of their fine leather shoes. They stood and began walking out of the courtyard.

It was more temptation than Andie could bear.

Not for the first time, Andie observed that being a servant was the closest thing to invisibility a human being could hope to achieve.

She followed Quad and Biggles at a discreet distance, carrying a broom in case anyone asked questions. Of course, no one did. She slipped into the back of the large dining room where the Winton family was gathered, and slid behind a man-sized chair of inestimable worth.

From her hiding place, Andie could identify all the Wintons. Quad and Biggles. Emily, Lavinia, and Mariah. Master Todd, the iron-armed patriarch, and his tall wife Emilia, who had provided the basic template for the sisters.

Maggie was seated at the end of the table. At first glance, she looked like a member of the family. She was just as pretty as the Winton sisters if not quite as tall, and her golden complexion matched Lavinia’s. It was her eyes that set her apart, so alert and mobile they could have been peering from the sockets of a trapped animal.

“Everyone settle down,” grumbled Master Todd. “Let’s move quickly. I have drinks with Dash Barclay at four.”

Emilia sighed, and her wing-like brows flew together in an expression of gentle regret. “It’s such a shame. We haven’t had an incident like this for decades.”

Quad frowned. “What about last month when I caught Bill Clean drunk in the wine cellar?”

“That was different. He only drank the leftover table wine. It was practically vinegar,” said Mariah, making a face. “Anyway, who cares? He was punished. My God, he was a tough old bastard, despite all the marinade.”

Andie shivered in her hiding place, confused. She didn’t know her father had been punished. Maybe he didn’t leave Mam, after all? Maybe he was sent away?

“Thievery and clumsiness are in their blood,” huffed Lavinia. “Every litter of Cleans breeds more thieves and klutzes. We need new stock.”

“Perhaps Quad could sire the next generation,” added Emily, looking pointedly at Maggie, who flushed from gold to peach.

“Barren bitch,” snapped Quad. “You’re just jealous that I can still spread my seed. Your eggs have been dead for half a millennium.”

“Silence!” yelled Master Todd, pounding his fist on the table. “Quad, you said that she confessed to destroying Winton property. Is that right?”

“Yes, and she said her — ”

“Fine,” said Master Todd, cutting off his son. “Is that true, girl? Did you destroy Winton property?”

“Yes,” said Maggie, wearing a wide, tight smile that spanned the chasm between antic and crazed. “It was me. I did it. Alone.”

For a moment, Master Todd appeared confused. Then he shook his head as if to knock a stray thought back into place, and reverted to his usual demeanor of angry complacency. He waved his hand in the air and, like magic, Martha Cook swept into the room, red-spattered white coat billowing behind her.

“Take this girl for punishment,” he ordered. “I want her ready for tonight’s dinner with the Pembertons.”

Martha’s face betrayed a momentary flicker of displeasure, as if some foul air had wafted by.

“Another one?” she asked. “So soon?”

“Just do it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Andie held her breath as Martha led Maggie away and the Wintons filed out. After the last Winton disappeared around the corner, she exhaled in staccato coughs and ran as fast as her short legs could carry her.

Andie found her mother sitting on Maggie’s cot, cradling a bundle in her lap and emitting strange barking sounds. As she crept closer, she saw that Mam’s hard face was damp with tears.

“They’re going to punish Maggie, but she didn’t do it!” she cried, clutching at her mother’s arm. “I have to explain! Master Winton thinks that she — ”

Mam removed Andie’s hand with unusual care and squeezed it gently before letting go. “I know,” she said in a ragged voice.

“No, you don’t understand!”

“You’re wrong. I do.”

Mam handed Andie the bundle. It was a square of cheesecloth tied with rough twine. When she unwrapped four pieces of glass, she howled until Mam, sobbing roughly, knocked her senseless.