The family’s house was a rambling white-frame farmhouse set on a hill. It had attics and dormers and porches. To her it seemed like there were twenty, forty, even fifty children in the family, but the actual count was thirteen. Like a family of rabbits in a warren on the hill, instead of underneath it. Not all the children lived at home; a few were off at university or had jobs in the city, but there were still enough to make the house feel perpetually in chaos.
Adelaide was a distant cousin, spending the summer with the family ostensibly as a sort of babysitter, but the parents were never far from home. The children’s parents, Ruth and Jim, spent a good deal of their time in the outbuildings that served as their business, where they spun and dyed the wool from their own sheep, and then knit it into fabulous and bizarre sweaters, hats, scarves. Their company, Au Natural, was known for its striking colour combinations and the way they had of constructing the knit pieces so that they seemed to float, or to hang just ready to fall apart. They’d even had designers from Europe and fashion editors at the farm to see the pieces and order things for collections. These fashionable people always left delighted with the modesty of Ruth and Jim, who ran Au Natural like they ran their family; with a charming negligence and trust in the ability of everyone to pull their own weight. They were known as good neighbours, unpretentious successes, and the best of the new-era hippies who combined style with eco-awareness.
Adelaide had to admit that the children, despite their absolute lack of respect for her or any other authority figure except their parents, kept themselves constructively busy. They built tree forts, put together little books with their own drawings and collages, knitted doll clothes under the trees in the orchard, rode their horses wildly, but not recklessly, and cared for their rabbits, ducks, dogs and cats without being reminded to. They were polite to Adelaide, but sometimes cut their eyes away when she was talking to them, to indulge in a secret amusement amongst themselves. Sometimes they would stare with wide-open eyes at her, as if she were speaking a foreign language when she tried to direct them to sit down at the table for lunch, or some such thing.
Then one of them would shout, “A picnic!” And before she could say anything, they would grab blankets and pillows, the older children filling a large willow basket with leftovers and bottles of lemonade. A picnic would be spread beside the brook that meandered behind the house, under a tree, the children eating, talking about books they had read or the antics of their pets, while Adelaide sat helpless a way off on a large pillow thoughtfully set by them in the shade of the tree and watched. Often their parents would stumble on these idyllic scenes and smile and the children would surround them vying for attention, and Ruth or Jim would tell Adelaide she was doing a really terrific job, they were so happy she had joined them that summer, and the children would look at her with their secretive eyes to see what she would say.
If she began to say, “Oh, it wasn’t . . .” they would roar and start some sort of noisy sport, or begin to tickle her until everyone was laughing, but Adelaide could feel their hard fingers scratching at her under the guise of play and she wished that the summer was over.
One of the children in particular regarded Adelaide with absolute disdain. Her name was Mary Matilda, and she was sometimes called Mattie, and sometimes Mary Mat, or just M. Adelaide, in her own fit of rebelliousness, called her nothing but Mary Matilda. The little girl was about nine or ten, with a dark fringe of hair over her forehead and her mother’s blue eyes in a face still round with baby fat. But her skin, a matte white under the dark hair and the eyebrows like a raven’s feather promised beauty later on. She never spoke to Adelaide unless pressed and always refused to do whatever Adelaide said—not with any anger, but with the calm assurance of authority. She would turn on her heel and go out to the stables or the yard, leaving Adelaide speechless. Adelaide didn’t dare grab hold of her arm or shoulder and call her back, because Mary Matilda was a great favourite among her siblings and they watched after one another with unusual devotion.
All the children were good riders, but Mary Matilda was the best of all. That summer she generally rode bareback. Adelaide would stand by the house while the children raced down the long winding drive overhung with trees on their horses. One of the boys, Edward, would lie along one of the long tree limbs and wave a flag for them to start. The children would gallop down the drive, coming to such an abrupt stop at the end that their horses’ hindquarters, foamed with sweat, would seem to almost crumple under the effort.
Mary Matilda almost always won. The only one who could beat her was her older brother Matthew.
Adelaide complained to Ruth and Jim, worried that the children would get hurt.
Ruth laughed, and said, “The children have been riding since they were born.”
“Before, honey, before they were born. You were riding horses into your third trimester.” Jim laid his arm along his wife’s shoulders. “Just about gave old Doc Johnston a heart attack.” He looked at Adelaide and winked. “Don’t worry, Adelaide, we won’t hold you responsible if anyone breaks their neck on your watch.” Then he leaned over and kissed Ruth in a way that made Adelaide blush.
Matthew, at sixteen, was the oldest of the boys still at home. His eyes were reddish brown and quite large. He used them a lot when begging favours for himself: to go down to the creek at night, to sleep on the porch when it got too hot in his attic bedroom, favours that Adelaide knew he only asked her permission for as a courtesy. He would have done what he wanted anyway. Matthew would throw his long legs and arms into various attitudes of supplication as he lay down beside Adelaide on the grass and asked her what she was reading, or if she wanted lemonade, he grinned at her with white teeth, his eyes peering from beneath a flop of sandy curls. He asked Adelaide about her friends and the city where she went to school, propped his chin in his long-fingered hands while he listened, his oddly delicate wrist bones sticking well out from his too-small jersey sleeves.
Matthew was considerate of the younger children and played their games, let them sit on his knee while he read to them. On rainy days Mary Matilda and the others would fall in a heap on him while he sat on the old sofa in front of the fireplace in the living room and told stories.
Often while he was playing hide or seek with the children or croquet, he would leave the game and come and sit beside Adelaide to talk. Once he showed her a poem he had written, another time, he put an arm around her when they looked at a book Adelaide had brought from home. When she shrugged out from underneath, he had looked at her with the same wide eyes all the children had, guileless.
Adelaide did nothing to encourage his puppy crush, but admitted to herself she found it comforting amidst the general disregard the others treated her with.
The only house rule was that for two hours in the afternoon, at the height of the day, was to be quiet time. The children were expected to go to their bedrooms and read, or sleep. None of the children ever disobeyed this rule, and Adelaide was always surprised at how quietly and quickly they went up to their rooms and shut the doors. The house would fall silent, except for the sonorous ticking of the grandfather clock that stood in the entryway. Adelaide usually went out to the kitchen porch and sat on the porch swing, where she read, or looked out over the well-tended gardens and land of the family’s farm. Sometimes Matthew would join her, bringing a drink or a book, and they would talk until the first of the children came down. He didn’t come all the time, not too often, because he said his parents would be disappointed if he did not set a good example for the younger children by keeping the one house rule.
When he did come, Adelaide found herself having fun for the first time that summer while she watched him goof around for her, imitating visitors to the farm, or when she caught him staring at her with his wide brown eyes, eager for her approval.
One night near the end of the summer, as the family sat at the long trestle table having dinner in the farmhouse kitchen, Ruth and Jim announced they had some news to share with them. The children, polite, attentive, listened while their parents told them that Marcus and Jane, their oldest siblings, would be coming home tomorrow. Secondly, Au Natural had just signed a contract with Devaughn, the British rock star, to provide dyed wools for the line of eco-correct clothing he and his wife had started, called Gardun, which would mean a trip to London for the whole family. Lastly, Ruth and Jim had decided to adopt a baby from Africa, a little girl whose father was dead from AIDS and whose mother could not afford to keep her any longer.
The children broke out in their own carefully controlled uproar, which always struck Adelaide as being somehow scripted.
“A baby? Can I name her?”
“I can’t wait to see Marcus and show him the new pony.”
“Is Jane bringing her boyfriend?”
“Are we going to be rich, Mummy?”
“Do you think we can go backstage to Devaughn’s show?”
Jim and Ruth laughed and answered questions animatedly, the fingers flying as they described various things, their arms flung out in gestures, with much theatrical hugging of the children closest to them.
Matthew winked at Adelaide, and she noticed that only Mary Matilda sat silent.
The next day during the quiet hours, Adelaide sat on the porch and waited for Matthew. She assumed his wink meant he wanted to talk to her about his parents’ news, that they shared a secret amusement at the whole thing. As she looked out over the garden and watched the small figure of Jim or Ruth, hard to tell from this distance, walk from shed to barn, she heard a step behind her. Adelaide turned and smiled, but it was Mary Matilda.
“Mary Matilda, it’s quiet time.” Adelaide felt a little tremor go through her—what if Matthew came down now and Mary Matilda saw and started a general mutiny? Matthew would never come down again during quiet time.
“I’m not sleepy.” Adelaide’s worry deepened. For that matter, what if Ruth or Jim came and saw Mary Matilda on the porch instead of in her room? They would know she had failed, that she had no authority over their so-well-behaved children.
“Mary Matilda, you don’t have to sleep. Just lie there and read. You know the rules.” Adelaide stood up.
Mary Matilda looked at her. “My necklace is caught in my hair and it pulls. Can you come upstairs and fix it.”
“I can fix it here, turn around.”
“No, upstairs.” Mary Matilda went in the house and Adelaide followed, knowing Mary Matilda was quite capable of causing uproar if it would make Adelaide look bad. She knew in that moment that the child in front of her, with the straight dark hair almost to her waist, the firm legs of an outdoor girl burnished with tan, the childish shoulder blades that fluttered under her striped t-shirt, hated Adelaide. Adelaide knew she hated this little girl right back, she wanted to slap her for her insolence. There was no corporal punishment allowed of course, but Adelaide felt that Mary Matilda and her attitude would only benefit from a few well-placed spankings.
When they came to Mary Matilda’s small room, a little cubby hole really, with roses on the wallpaper and a small bed with a chenille coverlet, an overflowing bookcase and dresser, a closet door ajar, she lost her temper.
“Mary Matilda, lie down right now.”
“My hair, it’s caught. It pulls. It hurts.”
Adelaide wheeled Mary Matilda around quickly, lifted her hair and saw that, just as she thought, the child wasn’t wearing a necklace.
“Get in that bed, or I’ll tell your parents.”
Mary Matilda’s face closed like a flower shutting for the night and she lay down rigid on her bed. Adelaide left the room and pulled the door almost shut behind her, not closing it so she could see if Mary Matilda was going to stay in her room. Adelaide would look for Matthew and tell him what happened so that if Mary Matilda made any more trouble, maybe he could stop it. She could see the little girl motionless on the bed, her white arm rigid at her side, and after a heartbeat, Adelaide began to walk down the hall.
Then she heard whispers.
Walking back silently to Mary Matilda’s door, wondering what trick the brat was playing on her now, she stopped just outside it and listened.
“Don’t worry, the bitch went back downstairs. Come on M, I’ll let you win the next race.”
Through the crack she saw his long limbs climbing on the narrow bed, the long-fingered hands tugging at something.
Standing in the hall frozen, her hand at her mouth, now she heard whispers all around her, heard the soft noises, like animals in their secret places, where there wasn’t any light.
Spread the word!