I heard the splashing, gravelly sound of a car moving toward my direction as I lay in the snow. I slowly raised my eyelids. I was looking up at the sky. Rain had seemed imminent earlier, but now cutting winds had begun herding the dark clouds away, revealing patches of fierce blue sky and slivers of sunlight.
I found I was able to turn my head. I turned to my left, blinking against the bright glare of the snow. I saw my car. The doors were still open. My left hand lay before my face in a pile of bloody slush. I felt no pain from it. I tried to move my fingers. No luck. I tried to move my arms, to raise myself up, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel my arms. I couldn’t feel my legs.
A glaze washed over my eyes. I realized that I couldn’t blink. My left ear and cheek didn’t feel cold or wet or even numb. The sound of the approaching car became hollow and distant, as if my ears were stuffed with cotton.
Where is Buckles?
I couldn’t see into my car. I couldn’t see if the dolls were still there.
The approaching car stopped behind mine. Doors opened and slammed shut. A woman in a long red coat rushed to the backseat of my car. A scar like lightning streaked across her left cheek. She pulled out a doll. The doll’s limbs dangled and swayed, but then the arms stiffened, bent at the joints, and embraced the woman. My failing ears heard coughs, sneezes, moaning, and whispering. I couldn’t call out. I couldn’t produce tears. I couldn’t close my eyes to my sad dream. It was a dream, only a dream, because Dinah Winsome was dead. She was a dead doll, and so were her children.
And so was I.
I had an ulterior motive when I entered the Winsome household as an instructor for the five children. They were wealthy, these Winsomes. And I was in need of patronage. And I even knew how I would start it. A suggestion at an opportune moment that I do a portrait of the children. Or each of them alone perhaps. Or the pair of boys and another of the three girls. In any case, I would do the work, impress Mr. and Mrs. Winsome, earn their recommendations to their likewise wealthy friends and acquaintances and just like that, I would be making a living. I would be painting, and getting paid for it.
There would be fierce competition of course to be the tutor to the children of the newly arrived family. Every aspiring artist, socialite, and industrialist, would be after the post. The old me would have bowed out. But I was ready now to start being accountable to the dreams I’d had as a child, to start making them come true. The house was abuzz with activity when I interviewed. Renovations, it looked like. I didn’t see the lord or lady of the manor. I didn’t see the children. I explained my qualifications to the man who said he was their housekeeper. He seemed to only be half-listening as he went about his work of…keeping the house. He rushed me out as I handed him my list of references. I went home knowing I had tried my best and failed.
So when the dinner invitation came later that afternoon, I was stunned. It was only when I arrived at the Winsome manor again, in the evening, when golden lights and lanterns enhanced the ethereal marble beauty of the manor, that I regained my wits. Servants took my coat and hat and led me to a receiving room, where I was served hot tea and biscuits and told that dinner would begin once the lord of the manor returned from his day at work in the city. I sat alone beside a healthy fire and looked at the letter that had accompanied the dinner invitation. The letter offering me the post of tutor. I wondered at my good fortune. The salary was just enough to live on, but that wasn’t the true fortune I’d just gained. I had opened a door for myself. And it was now in my hands to keep it open and walk through it, or to have it slammed in my face.
I had to impress my employers with my skill and knowledge, surely. But before that, I had to impress them without whatever etiquette and manners and charm they were expecting of me at this dinner. I pulled the collar of my dress away from my neck and moved away from the fire. It was feeling a bit warm in the room.
As I moved about the room, I caught movement in the hallway beyond and glanced to see a tiny face peeking at me from around the corner. The eyes on the little faced widened and the faced vanished behind the corner.
I smiled. One of the children. I wondered if they would be at the dinner. I wondered what they would be like. It seemed at least one of them wondered about me too.
Mr. Winsome laughed a deep and sonorous laugh. He had just shared an anecdote from his day at work.
On his right side, sat Philip, his heir, who took a breath and nodded, looking down at the potatoes on his plate, taking them very seriously. On his left side, sat Audrey, his eldest girl, who laughed along with him and looked out at the table, her brows raised as if challenging everyone to deny her father’s magnetism. I had the impression those two always flanked their father as if guarding him. The first Mrs. Winsome, the mother who bore them all, had died only a year before. It was no wonder the eldest children were fiercely protective of their surviving parent.
The other three children were Barney, who sat beside his brother and across from the sister who looked most like him and who had the most unusual name, Wilshire. She was the exact middle child. I wondered if her parents had given her a remarkable name to assure that she was remembered. Barney and Wil, as everyone called her, were the mischievous ones. I noticed Wil squirreling away bits of meat which she was obviously feeding to the dog who was sitting beneath the table at her feet. And Barney was moving some of his vegetables to his elder brother’s plate. Philip was either ignoring it, which would be sweet of him, or was unaware of it, which would be clever of Barney.
Then there was Jane.
The youngest Winsome child had chosen to sit beside me. I recognized her face as the one who had spied me in the reception room. Perhaps she had been appointed by her clan of brothers and sisters to investigate their new tutor.
All the children were well-behaved and well-trained enough to have greeted their diner guests warmly and treated them with respect during introductions and during the dinner. There was one other guest at the table, a business acquaintance of Mr. Winsome’s. I made note of the gentleman’s name. Perhaps, if my fool plan actually worked, he too would one day be a patron.
If my fool plan worked.
I did little talking and much observing and so I noticed that the children seemed uncomfortable around their mother, rather stepmother. When their father and his business friend spoke, the children ate or fidgeted normally. When their stepmother spoke, they seemed to freeze in time, as if they were all holding their breaths. And Audrey openly frowned at the woman. No one else seemed to notice, or perhaps they were ignoring it, and so I ignored it too. It was practically a rule of childhood that stepmothers (or step-anyone actually) should be despised. So long as I was not put in the middle of any conflicts, it was none of my affair.
An interesting evening indeed. But I felt a rising anxiety about the children. I tried to tell myself I was only going to be their tutor, not their nanny. But they had only lost their mother a year ago. And already their father had remarried. He was planning on going away for the rest of the season on a business trip. And now here I was, another woman who was not their mother entering their household, their world.
Polite as they were in the mixed company of dinner, in the presence of their obviously adored father, I wondered how they would behave when they would be alone with me during their studies. I would get at least some hostility. I had to prepare. I had to try and get some sleep despite the cold of my drafty second floor chamber and the other cold in the pit of my stomach. I lay awake a good long time, hours likely, reminding myself that I needed the money, I needed the connections.
When morning came, neither the cold of the air nor the cold in my gut had retreated. Nevertheless, I was resolved to put up with whatever they would throw at me. And so it came as a surprise to me two days later when I walked into the library in the west wing of Winsome manor and was greeted by both warm air and warm smiles from the waiting children.
It was Saturday morning. There was not yet snow on the ground. It was too cold to play outside. But the children should have been at least groggy if not cranky about being in the library instead of at play or in their cozy beds.
They were friendly and cooperative, even eager, as I reviewed the lessons from each child’s week in school. Perfect darlings. Any reasonable person would have been suspicious. It occurred to me that I had not asked any of the adults in these children’s lives why their previous tutors had left their positions.
After their schoolwork was tended to, I was tasked with presenting further knowledge to prepare them for later grades. That first day I started with art, naturally. I gave them pencils and paper and bid them draw whatever they wanted, hoping no one would sketch anything naughty or disturbing, expecting that someone would.
I did the assignment with them and sketched the children themselves. Slowly that troubling feeling in my gut receded. I observed too, features I could paint that would please their father. Audrey’s cinnamon brown hair was pretty. But her most striking feature was her eyes. She had a keen and piercing gaze. Philip may have been the heir, but Audrey had the eyes of a leader. And Philip had the hints of his father’s jawline, but his best feature was a jaunty smile that I had not seen at the night of the dinner. Perhaps without his father present, he felt at ease to not look as if he were taking each moment of life seriously. His posture was relaxed as he threw an arm around Jane and tried to spy her drawing. Barney’s detail was a tiny scar on his chin that he had proudly presented to me as “battle damage” from a fight he’d had with a stray cat, the details of which the others dismissed. I hoped he was exaggerating or making the whole thing up. Wil had an expression on her face that should have been conflicting, mischief and generosity. It would be a challenge to paint, if I could manage it at all. Jane would be easiest for that crimson beret that she had produced from somewhere and placed it atop her head. It was too big for her.
The children asked to take their lunch in the library, which they were only allowed to do if I were with them. I indulged them and myself. The kitchen was at my disposal while I was working on the grounds. I didn’t want to take advantage, but this was a chance for me to get better acquainted with the children. I showed them the sketches I’d done of them, which delighted them all.
“Jane, that beret looks smashing on you,” Audrey said, grinning at the sketch of her little sister.
“Our mum used to wear that,” Wil said, munching on a toasted cheese sandwich.
And that’s when Audrey turned to me, fixed me with her piercing gaze, and dropped this bomb on me.
“She’s still alive.”
And how was I to respond to that? I said nothing.
“Father will hear none of it,” Audrey continued. “We’ve tried. He threatened to separate us and send us off to boarding school. So we have behaved and done well in school, as well as we could.”
“Well…not too well,” Philip said.
“It’s difficult,” Barney said. “Pretending not to like arithmetic.” He looked around at his siblings. Wil put a hand on his shoulder.
A spike of cold pierced my gut. It sounded as if they were claiming to have engineered the need for a tutor.
“With the others, we had time to ease them into the idea of helping us,” Audrey said. “But there just isn’t time right now you see?”
I wondered if this were a prank. But it could not be. The children could not be that cruel and careless with the memory of their mother. They were looking at each other nervously.
“What my sister means,” Philip said, “is that with every passing moment, the trail grows cold, and we may never find her. We’re just children. There is only so much we can do without the aid of a grown-up. Philip leaned over the table. “We know it’s a lot to ask. And father isn’t paying you for this.”
“But we can,” Audrey said. “That is…not with money, but we have some precious items that our mother left for us. We’re agreed that we would gladly part with them if you would help us find her.”
“She means more to us than any trinket or possession we have,” Philip said, and his jaunty smile was gone, and the seriousness returned.
So that was to be the way I would make my fortune, by preying on the futile hopes of children. I pictured myself being caught and trying to explain why I was trying to walk out of Winsome manor with a handful of china or whatever it was their mother had left for them.
I inhaled and opened my mouth to speak.
Audrey held up her hand. “I do not mean any disrespect, Miss Conrad, so I speak before you do lest I am forced to interrupt you. If you’re going to share the usual wisdom about how time will heal our pain and how we must learn to adjust to our new family and how our mother would want us to accept our stepmother, please save your energy. We have heard it and we disagree.”
I closed my mouth and frowned at Audrey.
Audrey returned the frown with a sweet smile. “We only need for you to do some research for us, so we can confirm our suspicions.”
“And once we have proof, we can show father,” Philip said. “And we can go looking for her.”
I sighed and looked at each of them in turn. “What makes you lot think that your mother is still alive?”
“The real question is what makes everyone else think she’s not,” Audrey said. “They never found a body.”
That was enough. I held up my hands. “All right, it is not appropriate for us to be discussing this.”
Philip sighed and put a hand on his forehead. “I told you not to go that far.”
“She came to see us,” a quiet voice said. And we all turned toward it, toward Jane. “She told us she had to leave us for a while. She said she would return.”
“She never promised it,” Wil said. “That’s how we knew she meant it.”
Barney rubbed his chin and nodded. “Mum only says ‘promise’ when she doesn’t really mean to do something. As in, ‘I promise you can all have chocolates before dinner.’”
“Did you tell your father about this?”
“Of course we did,” Audrey said. She sighed. “He said it was a lovely memory for us to have of her. But that she didn’t know she was going to die in a car crash that night, so we should hold on to her words as a goodbye.”
“But it wasn’t goodbye,” Philip said.
“She told us to take care of our father while she was gone. She said we might have to protect ourselves. And she told us how we might do it.”
“Protect yourselves? From what?”
“Mum said circles are good,” Audrey said. “They protect.”
Philip nodded. “They hold you in, and they keep the bad out.”
“She made us some circles, but Buckles hid them.”
“Well, she had father hide them. She convinced him we’re too young to look after such costly trinkets. All we have now is the drawings Janey made.”
So “Buckles” was their nickname for their stepmother. Charming. Jane handed me a sheet of heavy drawing paper. In the center was a beautiful image that I thought was an angel at first. An angel from the waist up with outspread wings and eyes closed, holding a sword with both hands, its blade pointed downward.
But Audrey said, “It’s not an angel, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s a fairy. The fairy of sparrows.”
“It’s our family crest,” Philip said. “Buckles doesn’t like it, so she convinced father that it was…old-fashioned. All tapestries, shields, paintings, anything that has that image has been stored away.”
“Perhaps it made her uncomfortable since she has only just joined this family,” I said. I didn’t agree with Mrs. Winsome actions, if indeed she had done as the children claimed. But I had to be careful how I spoke to the children about their stepmother and not just because she was my employer. What I first perceived as defiance, some natural hostility, was becoming outright malice. Or maybe it had been malice all along.
I looked at the rest of the images. Jane was quite a talent. I was never as good at her age. Audrey was right, it was all circles. There was a pocket watch carved with the fairy of sparrows crest on it. A motto in Latin encircled the fairy.
“Paulisper sumus in hic mundo,” I said, reading the motto.
Audrey translated, “For a little while, we are in this world.”
I looked at her and raised my brows. “The family motto?”
“We don’t live very long, do we?” Audrey said. “Not long enough to do anything.”
She had an old soul, that Audrey. Jane had drawn a ring, again with the motto and the crest image raised in the center of the ring, and a pendant, whose cover looked like the pocket watch. There was a charm bracelet where one of the charms was the crest and the rest were feathers. And a pin with the fairy of sparrows encircled by rays of light. The watch was Philip’s. The ring, Audrey’s. The pendant was given to Wilshire. The pin to Barney. And the charm bracelet to little Jane.
I realized that what they were showing me was my potential payment for taking on their side job.
“They’re made out of silver,” Audrey said.
“I am here to tutor you and help you with your schoolwork. I do consider listening to your woes and trying to help you with them as part of my duties, but I would be wrong to encourage you in this.”
I would look into it, of course. They were so earnest and so desperate. But I couldn’t admit to them that I would. I couldn’t raise their hopes only to dash them again when all I found evidence for was the fact that their mother was truly gone, truly dead.
“I will not accept your offer,” I said, rising from my chair. “But I will clear off these plates, so that you all can get some recreation after a hard morning’s work.”
They left dejected. I feared that I had spent all their good will toward me. But I had made the right decision. The more I considered it, the more I realized I should leave the whole affair alone and let the children’s mother rest in peace. I had other work to do after all.
That night, I began sketching out the children on a piece of canvas. Perhaps if their father didn’t want a portrait of his children, the painting could be a peace offering from me to the children themselves.
The following Saturday, I saw Mrs. Winsome first as I entered the Winsome manor. I noticed that she wore red high-heeled shoes with gold buckles and a matching red belt with gold buckle. I wondered if she knew about her nickname. I wondered if the children had given me one yet. She was leaning to the left when she walked, carrying a case in her right hand that was obviously quiet heavy.
We exchanged greetings and I offered to help her with her case. She looked at me then and squinted. She must not have remembered me. So much for my attempt to bond with the lady of the house.
“The children will be waiting,” I said. “I’d best get to our studies.”
Recognition gleamed in Mrs. Winsome’s eyes. She nodded and continued on her way, lugging her large black case. There were servants everywhere. But it appeared Mrs. Winsome was a woman who liked to do her own heavy lifting.
As soon as I entered the library, I could tell that they had expected me to do what I had at first intended to do before I talked myself out of it, investigate their mother’s death. Their eyes were expectant. And that expectation lasted for the first of their review lessons, and the next, and then it waned. They were not rude or disruptive. They still did their work. They were still polite.
But I was not invited to lunch that Saturday. Nor for the next few. Then one Saturday one of the children was missing. Barney had come down with the flu and was bedridden. The rest seemed unable to concentrate on their studies. And they were so quiet that I could hear the slight squeaking of every uneven bit of floor I stepped on that morning.
I was becoming sensitive to every little observation, whether meaningless or not, about the children. Jane lingered a bit that day and was still gathering her things as I packing up mine. We walked out together, still wordless, still quiet. And the floor did not squeak when Jane walked upon it. She was slight and small, I told myself.
The next week, Barney was still absent. And Wil was now missing.
“Barney is still sick?” I asked the three remaining children. Audrey looked at me and frowned slightly. There was a challenge in that look. I shifted my gaze away from her and addressed Philip. “Did Wil catch the flu from him?”
Philip scrawled absently in his notebook. “Soon we’ll all disappear.”
I looked at Jane and though she struggled to control it, a tear fell from one eye, then the other. I rushed to her side and knelt before her.
“Oh Jane, don’t fret, you’re brother and sister will be all right. They’ll get better.”
“She hasn’t let us see them,” Audrey said, her voice flat.
I met her gaze. “If they’re ill, that’s for best, so the rest of you don’t get sick.”
Their siblings were sick. The weather was gray. Even the usually warm and bright library seemed dim and dull that day. I sighed.
“Why don’t you three take the rest of the day off,” I said. “Go up to your rooms, get warm, and cheer each other up. I’ll see if I can find Mrs. Winsome and ask her if I can look in on Barney and Wil. I’m sure she’ll let me see them. And then I can report back to you.”
I saw a glint of reserved hope in Audrey’s eyes. I turned back to Jane. The hope in her wide eyes was bright and bold. “We’ll just wait here,” she said.
I wiped her tears and left the children in the library. Mrs. Winsome’s office from where she ran the household and whatever other activities she performed was in the east wing of the manor. I hadn’t realized what a walk it was when I left the children waiting for me. It took me a quarter of an hour just to find her office. Luckily, she was in it.
Mrs. Winsome answered my knock and looked at me with that same puzzled and apologetic look of one who does not recognize a person whom they should recognize.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Winsome. But may I have a few moments? It’s about the children.”
“Of course, come in.” She led me into her office, a spare and meticulously tidy room. It seemed she was in the middle of writing a letter. There was parchment and a pen laying neatly on her desk. The only other point of interest was a birch wood cabinet with a glass front, the shelves of which were occupied by porcelain figurines.
Mrs. Winsome noticed my interest. “I’m a collector,” she said, beaming. “I used to make them too, before I met my husband. You said there was a problem with the children?” She moved around to her side of the desk and offered me the chair opposite hers.
I sat. “I understand that Barney and Wil are sick. I thought it was the flu, but I haven’t seen Barney for two Saturdays now. I was just concerned. And their brother and sisters are worried too. The children are quite close, as I’m sure you know.”
“I assume you’ve kept Wil and Barney isolated so they could not spread their illness.”
Mrs. Winsome nodded, still smiling.
“I wonder if I may see them, just to visit and say hello, see how they’re doing. And I can let the others know not to worry.” And I smiled then too, the same smile Mrs. Winsome wore. An ingratiating smile.
“Oh, they are all right, but it won’t be possible for you to see them.”
“Are they in hospital?”
Mrs. Winsome rose. “I’ve spared no expense to assure they are well taken care of. And I’m sending my husband updates on their condition.” She gestured to the letter on her desk. “And I must keep them isolated for the time being. But they should be perfectly fine by next week.”
She walked around the desk and stood before me, expectantly. Taking her cue, I rose.
“That’s good news. So I can expect them back in the library?”
“Well, no actually. I think the children have been studying hard enough. I’m writing my husband for permission to cancel their studies for just one Saturday, so I can take them somewhere. There’s a fair scheduled to come to town.” Her smiled faded and she raised her brows. “I do so want to share some time alone with the children. Indulge them and spoil them a bit. They don’t yet accept me, as I’m sure you know.”
And with that, she led me to the door and closed it behind me. That sinking feeling in my gut returned. I returned to the library, knowing my news would only further encourage the children’s suspicion and hostility toward their stepmother. Well, it was not my doing this time. The woman was making all the wrong decisions regarding the children. Perhaps she didn’t really care for them. Perhaps it was only for the sake of Mr. Winsome that she was even trying, as awkwardly as she was, to connect with them.
I did not like that she refused my visit with Wil and Barney. I was not their mother, only their friend. I had no right to see them, really. But their brother and sisters did, even from afar.
The library was empty. The children had returned to their rooms after all, I thought. I spent the time I would normally be tutoring the children wandering the house and questioning the house staff about Barney and Wil. Everyone had the same story, that the two were ill and bedridden. But where they were no one could say. No one knew.
And I asked about Mrs. Winsome’s schedule. Whether I intended to follow her, spy on her, confront her, I did not yet know. But a desperate feeling that I had to do something, plan something, something to help the children, was growing in me. My inquiries met with no suspicion. I was told she would be out for some hours the following day, going in to town for some reason. I left the manor. It was a chilly but sunny day. In the front yard, I saw one of the children.
Sparrows were gathered around Audrey. She was bundled up and throwing down something, grains of rice or crumbs of bread, for them to eat. She knelt down then and seemed to be speaking to them. I smiled sadly. She was likely telling them her troubles. I’d done the like when I was young. But then she rose and the sparrows hopped up into flight, they flew around her in a circle. She continued speaking to them, then stopped, and they flew off in all directions. She saw me then and nodded to me.
I walked toward her. There was slush on the ground from the meager few inches of snow that had fallen the night before.
I sighed as a stopped before her. “I wasn’t able to see them,” I said.
“I know. They’re gone. Like Mum.” She reached out and took my hand. She was wearing blue mittens. “You’re a good teacher, Miss Conrad. It was good to know you.” She gave a shake and before I could respond, she dashed back into the manor.
I was in the town’s library, its archives section, searching for news on the children’s late mother, Dinah Winsome.
I started looking up articles about the crash that killed her. She had been driving in the snow and had lost control of the car, which went over an embankment. Her body had not been recovered, but it was believed she may have been thrown from the car. She may have landed in the frigid waters of the channel that ran alongside the road. A search was conducted. She was not found. And because it was so cold, it was believed that even if she survived the crash, she had died of exposure. She was declared dead. There was a picture of her in one article, wearing the beret that Jane had now inherited. Dinah Winsome had a jaunty smile, the same one her son inherited. I saw the children in her. I smiled sadly and knew what a mistake I had made in not following through with my decision to look into her death sooner if only to understand why the children wanted to hold on to their mother so badly.
I went forward in time searching the archives for all news about the Winsome clan, expecting only news of Mr. Winsome’s business dealings, of his marriage to Buck—the new Mrs. Winsome, and their move to a new town. It seemed Buckles had been newsworthy too. For her dolls.
She was a doll-maker before she met Mr. Winsome. She still had hundreds of them in a chamber in their new house that Mr. Winsome had prepared for her. She used to take her best dolls to competition. She had won a competition in fact just before she met Mr. Winsome. There was picture of her and her winning doll. And when I saw it, I slapped a hand to my mouth to stop myself from crying out.
The image was gray and grainy, but the doll’s long coat, her eyes, her beret, her jaunty smile.
It was Dinah Winsome.
How morbid. Did Mr. Winsome know, I wondered. Did the children?
I found the image of Dinah Winsome from her obituary. And put it side by side with the image of the doll. The resemblance was uncanny. It was unnatural.
My mind was on the verge of a thought, a thought that was surely madness.
The family crest was the fairy of sparrows. Why a fairy? I looked up fairies and found familiar facts. They were light of step. Fairy families carried totems to protect themselves from enemies. Fairies are beholden to the laws they make for themselves in ways that we humans are not. Fairies were long-lived, indeed some might even be immortal. And they were difficult to kill. It was possible but I could find no stories about any who had been.
There was a fate that fairies feared. And it was worse than death. It was called caging. For their most serious crimes, the punishment for fairies was imprisonment in an inanimate object. Being forsaken by their own kind, they had only one hope of being set free before their sentence was completed, and that was to win the aid of a human. Some believe that the legends about genies came from stories of fairies trapped in bottles who tried to grant mortals wishes in the hopes of earning freedom. Likewise legends of haunted objects may have come from fairies trying to reach out to humans to help free them. If the sentence had an end, the fairy would be released, changing back into his or her natural form. But some fairies went mad or died while in captivity. Some of the objects themselves are destroyed, and the fairies within destroyed with them.
I looked at the picture of the doll that Buckles had made of Dinah Winsome.
If Dinah Winsome was a fairy, the car crash was unlikely to have killed her and the cold certainly would not have. The children were right. She told them she had to leave. Had she faked her death? Had she gone to draw some danger away from her family? Buckles.
What had gone wrong? How had Buckles gotten to her? How had Buckles gotten to Mr. Winsome?
I searched for any mention of Buckles in the literature about fairies. I found a reference to a local folk legend about a demon or evil fairy who first attempted seduction on its prey, eventually failed, and ultimately resorted to strapping its victims down with buckles to perform various torments on them. The demon had a name once, but saying it would summon the demon, so people just called it as Buckles.
I wiped my brow with the back of my hand. A few other references mentioned torments. If the illustrators were to be believed, those torments were cutting and disemboweling. And the demon had curled horns a donkey’s tail and hairy goat-like legs. Only one text mentioned a detail worth noting. And it was a doozy. The demon hated circles, could only tolerate a circle if it were broken by a buckle.
I believed every word of what I read. I knew what had happened to Dinah Winsome. I knew what I had to do.
I went home and painted into the deepness of night.
Snowflakes tumbled from the windless skies as I drove to the manor. Inside the manor that morning, I could have heard cotton balls falling on a feather. There were no workers around. The house staff must have been on break in the kitchen. The only person who saw me was the maid who let me in. She nodded to me and returned to her duties. I waited until she was out of sight before making my way to the east wing. I had a silver bracelet on my wrist and my book bag with me filled with tools. I had read about how to pick a lock. I hoped I could do it or my last resort would be to break the window from the garden outside. And that would surely get someone’s attention. I had a mirror with me. I had noticed there were none in the house. And some evil creatures feared their reflection. I had a blade and it sickened me to put that in the bag. For what if I were wrong? What if Buckles was just a woman and not a demon? Even if she were doing something wicked with the children, how could I use it? I had taken the blade out and put it back in a few times before deciding to keep it in the bag.
I made my way to Buckles’ office. It should have been empty. I hadn’t seen her car. Just to be sure, I knocked on the door. I took a breath and I began to lower myself when the door was whipped open.
And there stood Buckles.
I straightened. Her eyes widened with recognition.
“Miss Conrad,” she said. “Whatever are you doing here?”
She knew me now. I was no longer shielded by ignorance.
I sighed, trying to act casual as I flipped open my bag. “I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s important. It’s about the children again. I have something I must show you.”
“This is not the best time, Miss Conrad. Perhaps you can return tomorrow.” She tried to step forward and pull the door closed behind her, but I stood in her way.
“I’m afraid it can’t wait,” I said. I moved forward, forcing her to step back. I elbowed open her office door and pulled out a wire rope made out of wrought iron. I tossed the rope over her head and shoulders and pulled it tight, pinning her arms to her side.
“What are you doing?” She glared at me and her brown eyes glinted yellow.
“Passing the point of no return,” I said. My own eyes were wide. I held on to the rope, not knowing what to expect. The iron was supposed to hold her if she were the creature I’d read about.
She did not move, but I wasn’t sure if that was because she was stunned by the iron or stunned by my behavior.
“Miss Conrad, if you release me now,” she said, her voice calm but trembling slightly, “I will not call the authorities.”
“Where is the key to your gallery?” I reached into my bag for the container I had prepared that morning.
“What?” She seemed genuinely puzzled. She had probably expected me to demand to see the children.
“The key to your gallery? Your doll chamber.”
“Are you robbing me?”
I flipped open the canister and poured the contents on the floor. Thousands of grains of rice.
Buckles looked down and her puzzlement turned to anger for a flash. She bared her teeth and hissed.
I hoped that if she got free of that rope, she would have to count each grain before she came chasing after me. I hoped that fairies, even evil ones, were indeed beholden to the laws they made for themselves in ways that we humans were not. So beholden that they could not break them even if they wanted to.
“I will let you see the children,” Buckles offered. There was a pleading note in her voice now. “If you release me. I will show you that they are all right.”
“Is the key in this room? Is it on your person? In one of your pockets?”
Buckles could not lie to a human, it was written. But nor did she have to give the true and direct answer. I was too frazzled to play a game of wits. She wasn’t going to tell me. I would have to search.
I searched the office, emptied her desk drawers. I found keys. They were likely not the ones I needed from the smug look on Buckles’ face. But I took them. She was wearing a necklace of gold. It was tucked into her blouse. And she had a gold clip on the pocket of her jacket that was perhaps a keychain. I would have to search her.
I had to use something stronger than iron to assure she wouldn’t kill me while I searched her. I removed the silver bracelet from my wrist. I moved toward Buckles. She began to back away.
“What are you going to do with that?”
I quickly slapped the bracelet on her wrist and clasped it before she could struggle. But she merely froze and she began breathing shallow breaths. And she looked at me with bared teeth and yellowing eyes filled with the promise of pain to come.
I carefully searched her pockets. I found a bunch of house keys. I lifted the necklace up and out, and there was a key hung on it. I unclasped the necklace. I took all her keys. Dinah Winsome wasn’t the only thing I hoped to find. But there was nothing more in the office. I would not be able to hold off this demon fairy for long. I had to hurry. I had to find the Winsomes and get them away from the manor.
I left Buckles in the room, spilling more rice outside the closed door. Down the hallways was a large oak door. I tried the key that had hung around Buckles’ neck first. It opened the door to a large chamber.
A pungent chemical odor permeated the chamber. The room was vast and filled with rows of cabinets. Tiny figures were crowded into those cabinets. It was a library of dolls. I slowly ventured into the room. One little stuffed girl had glistening artificial hair, which framed a porcelain face painted with an eerie smile, made eerier still by her pose. Her arm was slung over her alternate heads, one sad and pouting, the other angry. A foot-tall lady dressed in dark-colored cotton gawked at me through her lidless eyes. I gaped in horrified wonder. I passed a porcelain doll with a cloud white complexion and a perfect red circle on each cheek, wearing a green silk dress embroidered with golden dragons; a cotton doll with corn-yellow yarn pigtails, a blue and white checkered dress, and a painted smile; a puppy fashioned from raw black wool with shiny black eyes.
I spotted a familiar figurine. A thin metal rod propped up her kid leather body, which was smartly attired in a black wool dress. Over the dress she wore an ankle-length coat of red velvet, which matched her hat, a beret. Waves of cinnamon brown hair tumbled from under her tiny beret. Deep peridot green irises hid beneath half-closed eyelids that gazed downward and to the right, making her seem pensive. I leaned forward. The doll’s eyes were now looking straight at me. I flinched back and gasped.
“Dinah,” I whispered.
I noticed something wrapped around her waist. Strands of cinnamon brown hair. Dinah’s hair likely. Buckles had used a circle too, to help bind her rival in this doll’s body. I pulled out the blade I had packed and carefully cut away the hair.
The doll’s arm ratcheted up and I almost dropped her. As I lowered the arm, I felt the clicking of some mechanism. I felt a button on her back. I pressed it and her arm popped up again. But I followed where it pointed this time, back to the cabinet where she had been stored. There was a red velvet box in the space behind her stand. It was a jewelry box, and it was locked. I set down the doll and tried the keys that I’d found with Buckles. One of them opened the box. And inside was the other treasure I was looking for. I recognized the totems from Jane’s drawings. The silver circles that Dinah had given her children to protect them.
I heard a noise and clutched the box to my chest and crouched over. It was a moaning sound, of a child.
“Hello?” I called. I lifted the Dinah doll up.
The sound came again, as of someone trying to call out but unable. Someone who might have been gagged.
“I’m looking for you,” I said. “Keep calling.”
There was an acrid fog in the room now. I was starting to feel nauseated. I followed the voice to the very back and what I found made me horrified and glad at the same time.
It was Audrey.
She was lying on a bench, stiff as starched lumber. Her hair was strange, too light, too straight, the color of butterscotch.
“Audrey.” I knelt before her. Her eyes shifted and she looked at me, but she seemed unable to move. I saw fear in her eyes and defiance. Her skin was unnaturally pink and peach. She moaned again. I set Dinah down and searched the red velvet box. I found the ring that was Audrey’s. Her fingers were fused together. Her other hand was the same. I slipped the ring over her right thumb. I rose and looked down at her.
“I’m not leaving you, all right? I just need to find the others.”
I grabbed the jewelry box and noticed the black cases along the wall of the bench that Audrey lay on. I had seen Buckles with one of those cases before. I opened the clasps on one and swung it open. Inside there was a plastic doll half my size with canary yellow hair gathered in a pony tail. Her dress and long socks left only her chunky knees exposed. Her arms were bulbous, her fingers puffy, and her cheeks looked as if they were storing nuts for the winter.
I opened the other three cases and found identical dolls inside. They didn’t look like the children at all. They had glossy butterscotch hair, identical faces with puffed cheeks blushing misty patches of pink, and sun-yellow satin clothes. I stared into one doll’s eyes. Blue and white glass stared back at me. It had to be them. I could never carry all five out by myself before Buckles escaped her bonds.
I didn’t have time to get the totems on them now. I had to get them out, first, and then sort it out.
A roar sounded from somewhere near the chamber entrance. Buckles.
I turned. Audrey was sitting up on the bench. She was holding the doll of her mother and still wearing the ring on her thumb.
I knelt before her and took her warm face in my hands. “Are you all right? Did it work?”
She glanced up at me. The fear was fading from her eyes. Some other emotion was replacing it as she looked down at the doll in her hands.
“I think it’s your mother,” I said.
“It is.” Determination in her voice.
“Audrey, if you can walk, I need you to…” I was going to tell her to go to my car and wait there. But she would have to get past Buckles’ office. And she would have to leave her brothers and sisters behind for me to rescue. “…help me carry the others out of here. I don’t know how much longer the traps I put around Buckles will hold.”
“What did you use?”
I told her.
“You’re very clever, Miss Conrad. We failed you by not teaching you.”
“I wouldn’t have listened. I failed you by not listening.”
Audrey shrugged. “Our story is hard to believe.”
She hopped down from the bench just as another roar sounded from outside.
“She can’t turn into a dragon or anything like that, can she?” I asked.
Audrey gave no answer. We were both were groggy and unsteady on our feet.
“Find me a cart,” I said. “We can put them on it and roll them out.”
“Can’t you reverse the enchantment on them, like you did with me?”
I led her to her brothers and sisters. “I can’t tell who’s who,” I said.
Audrey held up the doll in her hand. “She would be able to.”
“I broke the circle binding her, but she isn’t changing back as you did.”
“You didn’t bring her totem,” Audrey said, smiling.
“I don’t know what it is.”
“I do. I have it.” She held the doll to her chest and smiled at me. “I’ll save mother. You save the rest?”
I leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Be careful, Audrey.”
She pointed to the spot I had kissed. “That should help actually.” And she ran off.
Audrey had her totem. She would be safe, I hoped. But the others…
I found a cart loaded with vials and bottles and doll parts. I cleared it all off and carefully lifted each doll child and placed it on the cart. They wouldn’t all fit. I would still have to carry one of them in my arms.
A wash of vertigo finally unhinged me. My knees buckled. I dropped to the ground.
Shallow breaths gusted through my nose. A lump was lodged in my throat. My skin felt stiff, as if coated with dried clay. I swallowed, but the lump didn’t budge. I rolled over and lifted myself back up.
My right hand felt stiff and I looked at it. It was dark mahogany with knots and streaks of grain replacing the natural wrinkles of skin. My neck felt as if it were fixed in place with a pin that was attached to my spine. I could turn it from side to side but not up or down.
I lifted one of the children up with my left arm and propped my wooden right hand onto the handle of the cart. I rolled the cart as quickly as I could. I raced past dolls and more dolls and the horrifying feeling that they were watching me and calling out for help. Outside of the chamber, my breathing eased a bit, but my legs were beginning to stiffen. I had to hurry. I was transforming. I had to get the children free and protected before I was of no use to them.
I passed Buckles’ office, glancing over. The iron rope was broken and lying on the ground. Buckles stooped over the grains of rice, the silver bracelet burning a welt into the flesh of her wrist. She watched me pass and snarled at me.
“Almost done!” she promised.
My knees were stiffening. I thanked whatever forces of good there were in the world that I had no stairs to climb or descend. I rolled the cart toward my car. It bounced so violently I was sure the dolls’ clay faces would crack. As long as they were still alive, they would withstand a few cuts and scrapes.
I jabbed my key into the lock, opened the door, and rolled the dolls out onto the backseat, careful not to harm them or the painting I had brought. I slid into the driver’s side. The air was fresh and clean. But I was still having trouble breathing. My lungs must have been hardening. There was no way I could drive them far enough away. There was only one thing left to do. I swung my legs around, barely able to swivel my torso now. I rolled off the seat.
I flung open the door to the rear seat where the dolls lay scattered. I opened the jewelry box with my good left hand and pulled out the totems.
The girl with the ponytail could be Jane. She typically wore her hair that way. But I touched the doll and I looked at her, and I saw mischief in the expression. Wil. I slipped the pendant over her head. I looked at the other girl. Yes, she looked pensive and wise. That was Jane. I slipped the charm bracelet over her wrist. I examined the boys. A small scar on one’s chin marred the doll’s perfection. The other boy was the only doll who was smiling. I hadn’t seen that before. I clipped the pin on the scarred boy. And the pocket watch on the smiling one.
Come on, you brood, I said, in my mind, for I had no voice left. Wake up. No more dreaming. Wake up!
With a cold crunch, a web of cracks bloomed on the glass of the car’s rear window.
“They are my children,” a voice said from behind me. I did not turn.
I reached into the car and tore off the paper around the painting. I pulled out the painting in its round silver frame. I lost my balance and fell backward, landing on my left elbow in the snow and slush.
I grasped the painting and dragged myself away from the car, away from the children, cranking my body forward using a remnant of shoulder movement. My torso was stiffening. I tried to drag myself faster. I twisted my body around until I was parallel to my car. I heard Buckles slogging toward me. Pulses of fear swelled and collapsed in my chest.
Birds flew down from the trees toward me. They flew in a circle around me.
A circle of sparrows.
The lump in my throat moved. I swallowed. I coughed. I could breath. And I could speak. And I felt the fingers of my left hand twitching. I moved them into my bag.
Suddenly, the circle of sparrows burst outward. Some were thrown upward into the sky. Some fell to the ground.
Buckles loomed over me. I could only blink at her.
“What’s this?” She looked at the painting that now lay beside my hip. It was a painting of her. A painting of Buckles. She knew what I intended with it. But her vanity was so great, she could not help but be mesmerized by it.
The fingers of my left hand clamped around the handle of the silver-framed mirror in my bag. I slipped it out and held it up to Buckles. She flinched back and shrieked. She flicked a finger and the mirror cracked and shattered. A shard sliced my hand. And more would have pierced the flesh of my face and neck, if there were any flesh left to pierce.
I was helpless. A fairy transformed and trapped in this way could be freed. But a human, a human always died. Our bodies were too fragile. I lay on my back, looking up at the sky, hoping the totems were working, that Audrey had saved her mother, that it would be worth it in the end, the little while that I was in this world.
Through blurred glassy vision, I saw her face, her living face, hovering above me. She frowned and reached down and I could tell she was touching my cheek, but my wooden doll skin could not feel her hand.
Then, my chest sprung outward, as if someone had lifted a slab of marble off it. I guzzled in air. My neck flopped backwards and I jerked it back up. I turned my head back and forth and around. The tightness in my muscles cracked from the inside out. A fizz of cracks and fissures ran down the length of my legs. I felt the casts on my bones splinter off. I twisted my ankles and bounced my legs, marveling at how rubbery and springy my body was. With a dull pop, my ears uncorked. I propped myself up on my elbows under the watchful gaze of the fairy who’d freed me. I moaned and clenched my eyes to squeeze out the nausea.
When I opened them, I saw a circle of fairies, holding hands, surrounding something, some creature made of noxious vapors and yellowing eyes, and it melted down into the ground, into a circle of silver.
Copyright © 2013 by Nila L. Patel.